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Can It Be Possible? Attack Videos Prove Politics Can Indeed Get Dirtier

July 03, 1994|Susan Estrich | Susan Estrich, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a law professor at USC. She served as campaign manager for Michael S. Dukakis in 1988

President Bill Clinton's recent lament that no President in modern history had ever been subject to "more violent attacks" is not historically accurate. Franklin D. Roosevelt was loathed with as much passion as he was loved. Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon were both vilified. And the invective unleashed on Presidents in the 19th Century--from Thomas Jefferson through Abraham Lincoln and Grover Cleveland--was worse than any of it.

What is different about the attack on President and Hillary Rodham Clinton, however, is the way it is being conducted. This is a high-tech war being targeted to a special community. This is television, not pamphleteering.

Tens of thousands of people have spent $40 plus shipping for a videotape of "Bill and Hillary's Circle of Power." Many more saw it for four weeks running on Jerry Falwell's cable TV shows. The tape ends with an appeal to call a 900 number and pay $4 more to be part of a Citizens Petition to Sen. George J. Mitchell and Speaker Thomas S. Foley. It is the new democracy, based in the new technology.

The video has a number of segments. The President and his wife are charged with murder, insider trading, shredding documents, setting fires, ordering people beaten up. A mother complains that her child's death was covered up by Clinton appointees. It is the power of video that makes it all seem almost plausible.

Gary Parks appears on the video. He says his father, Jerry Parks, was a private investigator in Little Rock, Ark., who had been the Clinton headquarters security chief. He says his father was murdered in September, 1993. He blames Clinton.

"My father was assassinated," Parks tells us, because he was "the one link" who could connect Clinton to wrongdoing. According to his son, the father kept a large file on Clinton; his son accompanied him on investigative trips to Gennifer Flowers' apartment building--which we see. "Bill Clinton had my father killed to save his political career."

Larry Nichols, the Arkansan who has made a career of attacking Clinton--beginning with a lawsuit filed before the election--is the star of the video. He is introduced by a judge, who tells us that Nichols has been unfairly maligned by the Clinton spin doctors; that he is a truth-teller who has proved right. Larry then looks into the camera, sympathetic, beaten down but determined.

This is what he says: "You may wonder what it's been like fighting Bill Clinton. People are dead in Arkansas. There are people that are dead. Yeah. When I started this, I knew that I might be one of the unsolved mysteries in Arkansas. There were boys on the railroad track. (Cut to a lonely railroad track.) There were countless and countless people that mysteriously died that, as it turned out, had some connection to Bill Clinton. I believe this is going on today."

There's more. The video specifically accuses Mrs. Clinton of having an affair with Vincent W. Foster Jr. Over a picture of the two of them smiling together, Nichols charges that Foster's death was not a suicide--so ignore that the independent prosecutor's report said the opposite last week--and says Mrs. Clinton's personal secretary was looking for love letters when she and three others searched his office. That search is then re-enacted later in the video--in a segment hosted by Falwell himself.

And you react. You feel sorry for the mother, even if there's no evidence to back up her story. The son seems to be telling the truth; you feel sorry for him, too. You like Nichols. To read about Nichols is to imagine a crackpot. But to see him on this video is to think you know a sincere, sympathetic, credible man. It's not a good video, but it doesn't matter. It sucks you in, and it suckers you in.

Visual images have power. Countless studies have proved it. If an image is strong enough, it doesn't matter what the spoken words are. The smiling couple look as if they could be lovers; the railroad tracks look desolate enough that dead bodies might well be left there. Ronald Reagan's staff used to tell reporters that even the most negative stories didn't hurt the President if he looked good in the piece--a blistering report by Lesley Stahl on his environmental record won her no enemies at the White House, because the pictures were so good.

Reading a description of White House staffers searching Foster's office is one thing; seeing it re-enacted is quite another. The searchers appear in shadows. The mood is sinister. You barely notice the disclaimer that says it is a re-enactment.

On paper, Nichols' charges are preposterous. But Nichols is good on television. He seems credible. He may be a liar, but he's a good television personality.

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