Patriot Games

If you’re a reader, you may be wondering why Ted Olson isn’t in jail by now. “Despite his evasive disavowals,” blared a recent headline in the on-line magazine, “Salon investigations showed the right-wing consigliere was deeply involved in a sordid plot to bring down President Clinton.” According to evidence assembled by an investigative team, for a time in the nineties, Ted Olson did legal work for The American Spectator – a magazine that published articles critical of Bill Clinton. And that’s not all. On at least one occasion, Olson himself wrote a story hostile both to Clinton and to his wife.

Naturally, it was only a matter of time before the scoop – evidence of Olson’s deep involvement in an evil plot to produce unflattering magazine articles – was noticed on Capitol Hill. The time came in April, when President Bush nominated Olson to be the U.S. solicitor general. Olson had seemed a natural choice for the job. He was generally well regarded in Washington. Most significant, he had argued many times before the Supreme Court, including on behalf of the Bush campaign during the Florida recount. He was considered reasonably scholarly and reliably conservative – just what you’d want if you were George W. Bush and in the market for a solicitor general.

Then the bombshell dropped. Democrats on the judiciary committee asked Olson pointed questions about his affiliation with The American Spectator. Pat Leahy of Vermont was particularly eager to discover what Olson might know about the “Arkansas Project,” the Spectator’s investigation into Clinton’s behavior as governor of Arkansas. “Were you involved in the so-called Arkansas Project at any time?” Leahy wanted to know. “When and how did you first become aware of the Arkansas Project?”

Olson’s replies were straightforward. Pointing out that he was not an employee but a member of the magazine’s board, Olson said he had no direct role in the Arkansas Project. He said that he first became aware of the project sometime in 1998. The one Clinton story he wrote for the magazine had nothing to do with it.

The story might have ended here if the judiciary committee hadn’t heard from David Brock. Brock used to work at the Spectator. He had a different memory. According to Brock, Ted Olson’s role in the magazine’s anti-Clinton stories was larger than he had admitted. As Brock later told the Washington Post, Olson attended dinners at the home of Bob Tyrrell, The American Spectator’s editor-in-chief. Some of those dinners, Brock alleged, were actually “editorial planning sessions, on articles on the Clintons in Arkansas.”

Senator Leahy was appalled. He demanded that Olson turn over “any minutes, audits, or records” pertaining to anti-Clinton articles and the Arkansas Project. And he suggested that investigators from the judiciary committee “obtain information firsthand” from writers and editors who worked at the Spectator during the years Olson served on the board. In the meantime, Olson’s journey to the solicitor general’s office stalled.

There are two striking things about Ted Olson’s recent experiences in the Senate. One is that so far, hardly anyone on Olson’s side – or, for that matter, at the ACLU or on the Washington Post’s editorial page – has cried McCarthyism. Olson has not been charged with a crime. He stands accused of being in the company of journalists who dislike Bill Clinton. This shouldn’t be enough to derail a nomination.

The other thing is that Brock was able with a straight face to describe any dinner at Bob Tyrrell’s house as an “editorial planning session.” To anyone who has ever eaten dinner with Bob Tyrrell (and I have a number of times), this is ludicrous. A sober Tyrrell sitting at the table, sharing his editorial vision, listening as story ideas are batted around? Impossible to imagine. Perhaps Brock was using “editorial planning session” as an amusing euphemism.

But he almost certainly wasn’t. Which is part of the reason the entire “sordid plot” theory is so ridiculously improbable. Bob Tyrrell was never at the center of a powerful conspiracy. He was a buffoon. The Arkansas Project never came close to bringing down the president. The “investigation” didn’t even produce a credible magazine story. Indeed, the Arkansas Project – wasteful, misguided, and credibility-sapping – is one of the main reasons The American Spectator no longer exists in recognizable form. It’s now a business magazine. The Arkansas Project didn’t destroy Clinton. It destroyed The American Spectator.

So, was Ted Olson, as a member of the board of a small conservative magazine, a threat to American democracy? Even Pat Leahy must know better. David Brock certainly does.

Brock, or course, is no longer a right-wing muckraker. After finding fame with his book The Real Anita Hill, Brock went to The American Spectator. There he wrote a 17,000-word story accusing Bill Clinton of using Arkansas state troopers to procure women. The story, salacious as it was, held up. Brock got a huge raise, and $1 million advance for his next book, the definitive hit job on Hillary Clinton. The book came out in 1996. It was a clip job. It bombed. Brock became a liberal.

I knew Brock throughout this period and talked to him regularly, at parties, at lunch, and at his house. He never seemed particularly ideological to me. (On the other hand, I learned several years later that Brock had reported things I’d told him in confidence to his new friend at the White House, Sidney Blumenthal.) Most of the time, he talked about money.

In the summer of 1997, an editor at Slate asked Brock and me to write an online “dialogue” on the state of conservative journalism. I wrote the first installment, as a letter to Brock. I pointed out the irony of Brock’s criticizing the right as monolithic and intolerant even as he still drew an enormous salary from The American Spectator. The letter was fairly nasty. Brock replied with an even nastier one. I was about to hit back when Brock called me. Before you start typing, he said, you should know that I meant nothing personally. I don’t take any of this seriously, he explained. I’m only doing it “for the publicity.”

I was reminded of Brock’s comment the other day when I read his name in the Washington Post. David Brock, I thought – there’s a name I haven’t heard in a while. I wonder why he’s involved in Olson’s confirmation? Then, days later, I read that Brock’s book, an attack memoir originally due out a few years ago, was to be published in November.

Coincidence? I’m no, but I wouldn’t doubt a conspiracy.

Patriot Games