The Ken Starr Times Puffery and The Normalization of the Paranoid


Remember: this guy was super gross. Image from NYMag

“There are certain tragic dimensions which we all lament,” Mr. Starr said in a panel discussion on the presidency at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

“That having been said, the idea of this redemptive process afterwards, we have certainly seen that powerfully” in Mr. Clinton’s post-presidency, he continued…

If there is a bigger weasel phrase in history than “tragic dimensions which we all lament”, I don’t think I’ve heard it.

The Times this morning ran a piece on Ken Starr, the sex-obsessed maniac whose pursuit of Bill Clinton helped turn the 90s into the sordid and greasy decade that it was, in an attempt to show that age has mellowed him to the point where he can depersonalize the very recent past. It was also a clinic in the way that scandal, especially that regarding the Clintons, becomes normalized, and how nonsense phrases that mean nothing become a sort of shorthand for the initiated, and a vague synecdoche for everyone else. This isn’t history, either. It’s obviously directly relevant to this year’s campaign.

Most of the article is about Starr lamenting the anger and incivility present in our politics, which he thinks has led to the “almost radical populism” of Trump’s rise (the “almost” is nice). He seems to sort of regret his role, but more in the way that he regrets the whole thing had to happen, and how he was unwittingly sucked into a genuinely gross vortex. The Times, weirdly, lets him get away with this (also glossing over the “sexual assault is OK if you’re good at football” portion of his career.)

But the real important part of the article comes at the brief discussion of what actually led to the impeachment.

A federal judge in the Reagan administration and the solicitor general under President George Bush, Mr. Starr was named independent counsel in 1994, taking over the investigation of the Whitewater real estate venture and the suicide of Vincent W. Foster Jr., a deputy White House counsel. He expanded the investigation to include the Paula Jones lawsuit and the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Now, if you were to read that, and hadn’t really been paying attention to politics in the 90s, or had been paying enough attention to pick up a few phrases, that all seems to make sense. But read it again: it’s fucking nonsense.

First of all, you might say: wait: he was looking into an old Arkansas real estate deal and an unrelated suicide? Isn’t that a little weird? If you are versed in Clinton paranoia, it isn’t. Foster’s suicide was somehow linked to shady (and always made-up) Clinton illegal dealings, and he was “murdered”, or forced into suicide, to cover it up.

Now here’s the problem. Just reading gives it the imprimature of, if not truth, at least some validity. It really should read “…the suicide of Vincent Foster, an investigation driven entirely by the rabid paranoia of nascent right-wing radio and Republican leaders who were unstoppable in their effort to delegitimize a popularly-elected President.” That wouldn’t be editorializing. That’s exactly what happened. Starr was appointed to investigate nonsense that brewed in the untamable ether of talk radio, with its weird cultish incantations floating through the air, and somehow expanded that into every unrelated avenue he could. (Yes, Bill Clinton had sexual relations with Monica Lewisnsky; no, that shouldn’t have mattered.)

That the Times can’t say that, or won’t, shows how we’ve come to accept “scandal” in the place of actual events. They are said enough, and aren’t consistently and clearly refuted by the mainstream press, as afraid as they of insulting the right, and they become, if not true, evidence of a general sleaze. The press easily repeats that “people don’t trust Hillary thanks to an air of scandal that has hung over the Clintons since Whitewater and Vince Foster”, without saying “both of which were made up.” It’s like the President of Unfiltered Smokestacks, Inc talking about “an air of general smog that seems to be hanging over the city”.

 It’s easy to see how this is playing out. Whitewater and Foster easily became Benghazi, a bad scene, but a non-scandal that became shorthand for Clinton perfidy (for a clear demonstration of this, remember that Benghazi was supposed to be an Obama scandal, and then when that didn’t work, moved over to Hillary). Donald Trump has basically promised that his entire campaign will be a recitation of these phrases, intermingled with self-praise. There isn’t a need to actually make an argument: just say Vince Foster enough, and the initiated will understand, and people who don’t follow politics obsessively, just enough to hear things, will be left with a general feeling of distrust. It’s how the Clinton Era has always worked. It kicked into high gear, and probably more feverishly, with President Obama, thanks to the dynamic of race and success, but the Clintons have always been the targets.

The media probably won’t debunk this nonsense every time, because it’s boring, and they don’t want to be seen as prejudiced toward the truth. Bernie seems happy to, if not play in the swamp, certainly work to prevent it from being drained.

David Brooks today asked why Hillary is disliked, and suggested it’s because she’s an obsessive and ambitious workaholic. To be sure, she has never done a good job of promoting her personal warmth, and is clearly someone who has wrapped herself in her work (which it must be reminded, is public service, even if you get rich doing it). She is very ambitious, and we dislike people, especially women, who don’t pretend not to be. Brooks somehow doesn’t stumble upon the idea that for 30 years people have been telling hideous lies about her and her husband, and a mostly compliant media “reports the scandal.” That might also have something to do with it.

One thought on “The Ken Starr Times Puffery and The Normalization of the Paranoid

  1. Pingback: Trump and Hillary Poll Numbers: The Bernie Argument | Shooting Irrelevance

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