The Magazine

CLINTON'S APOLOGIST

Mar 23, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 27 • By ERIC FELTEN
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Just nine months ago, David Brock was promoting an article he had written for Esquire, in which he ostentatiously renounced his status as "Right- Wing Hit Man." Brock was the star investigative reporter for the American Spectator. He had written the huge 1993 article on "Troopergate" -- 17,000 words of salacious stories about Bill Clinton as told by the Arkansas state troopers who witnessed them. Before that, he had published the bestselling The Real Anita Hill, defending Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas -- a book that made Brock a hero to many conservatives and a villain to the Left. Now he was turning his back on that phase of his career, and getting lots of TV airtime in the process. But Brock still defended his earlier work: "My journalism was good journalism," he told the Today show's Matt Lauer. "It was accurate and thorough."


Last week, Brock was all over the TV talk shows again, promoting a new Esquire article, in which he ostentatiously apologizes to President Clinton for having written the Troopergate story. The trooper story mentioned a meeting in a hotel room between governor Clinton and a woman named "Paula," who would of course come forward in the article's aftermath to file her now famous sexual-harassment lawsuit against the president. Paula Jones's lawyers helped to unearth Monica Lewinsky. And so, as Brock sees it, by writing the Troopergate story, he personally is responsible for the Lewinsky affair, and he's really, really sorry about it. So sorry, in fact, that he now denounces his original Troopergate story as "bad journalism." This has caused a lot of confusion. The spectacle of a journalist publicly professing that his work is "good," and then less than a year later proclaiming that same work "bad," is unusual, to say the least.


Brock refused to be interviewed on the record for this story and would answer only unilluminating yes-and-no questions off the record. But in his many public appearances last week -- on Good Morning America, on the Today show again, on CNN's Morning News and Crossfire, on Rivera Live and Equal Time and MSNBC's Crisis in the White House - - he said that he is convinced the motives of the Arkansas state troopers were bad (he called them "greedy" and "slimy"). And he's now convinced his own motives were just as suspect: "I wasn't hot for this story in the interest of good government or serious journalism," Brock writes in Esquire. "I wanted to pop [the president] right between the eyes."


But the one thing he doesn't seem to care about is the one thing a journalist should care about: the truth of the story. Brock professes complete and total ignorance about whether his Troopergate story was true. A perplexed Charlie Gibson on Good Morning America urged Brock to point out any one detail about Troopergate that he had gotten wrong. Though there were peripheral errors in Brock's story, ones that he could, and should have corrected -- for example his lurid gossip about Hillary Clinton and Vince Foster -- he didn't even try to set the record straight. He merely repeated that he could no longer "stand by the story."


Brock isn't sorry for getting the story wrong, but for getting the story at all: "I did kind of a cost-benefit analysis in my own mind about Troopergate and going down this path," Brock told Gibson, "and I really concluded that the costs outweigh the benefits." Once upon a time Brock wanted to hurt the president; now he wants to help the president -- and neither impulse is a journalistic one.


The idea that David Brock could somehow have spared Bill Clinton his present grief is a self-aggrandizing fantasy. What about the many other journalists -- serious, talented, self-respecting professionals -- who have reported equally damaging stories about the president? In his Esquire article, Brock either ignores those other reporters, or insults them.


In fact, Brock was hardly alone in reporting on the Arkansas troopers. The Los Angeles Times had the story, too. And if Brock is as confused about the facts as he claims, he ought to talk to the two L.A. Times reporters who were competing with him, Bill Rempel and Douglas Frantz. Cliff Jackson -- Clinton's old friend turned nemesis -- had brought the troopers to Rempel and Frantz first, but it was taking them a long time to produce the story. Their editors were understandably leery of the subject and kept putting up roadblocks. But more important, Rempel and Frantz were doing the time- consuming work of checking the story out. To light a fire under the Times, Jackson introduced the troopers to Brock, correctly guessing that Brock would not waste time on independent corroboration. It was one of the best breaks the White House ever had -- and they knew it.