It is almost eerie how closely Hillary Clinton’s current email scandal parallels the beginnings of the Whitewater fiasco that ensnared her and her husband almost 20 years ago. Both began with tendentious, inaccurate stories published by The New York Times; both relied upon highly exaggerated suspicions of wrongdoing; both were seized upon by Republican partisans whose own records were altogether worse; and both resulted in shrill explosions of outrage among reporters who couldn’t be bothered to learn actual facts.
Fortunately for Secretary Clinton, she won’t be subjected to investigation by less-than-independent counsel like Kenneth Starr — and the likelihood that the email flap will damage her nascent presidential campaign seems very small, according to the latest polling data.
Yet the reaction of the Washington media to these allegations renews the same old questions about press fairness to the Clintons, and how the media treats them in contrast with other politicians. In this instance, the behavior of Republican officials whose use of private email accounts closely resembles what Secretary Clinton did at the State Department has been largely ignored — even though some of those officials might also seek the presidency.
Jeb Bush released a large volume of emails from the personal — i.e., non-government — email account that he used as Florida governor, and praised his own transparency with typical extravagance. The problem is that those emails represent only 10 percent of those he wrote. The rest he has withheld, without any public review under Florida open records laws. When Scott Walker served as Milwaukee county executive, before he was elected Wisconsin governor, he and his staff used a secret email system for illegal campaign work, which emerged as part of an investigation that ultimately sent one of his aides to prison (another was immunized by prosecutors). Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has used a personal email account for government business, as has Texas Governor Rick Perry. So have Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and various Congress members who have been heard to spout about Clinton’s emails, such as Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz.
Hypocritical as they may seem, none of those examples compare with the truly monumental email scandal of the Bush years, when millions of emails went missing from White House servers — and many more were never archived on those servers, as required since 1978 by the Presidential Records Act, because dozens of Bush White House staff were using private email accounts provided by the Republican National Committee.
Notably, those RNC email clients included top Bush adviser Karl Rove, who used committee accounts for an estimated 95 percent of his electronic messaging, and by his staff.
Among many other dubious activities, Rove aide Susan Ralston used her private RNC email to discuss Interior Department appointments with the office of crooked lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who wanted to influence the department on behalf of gambling interests. She told Abramoff’s associate that “it is better not to put this stuff in their email system because it might actually limit what they can do to help us, especially since there could be lawsuits, etc. …” While Rove was forced to surrender some emails involving his notorious exposure of CIA agent Valerie Plame, he retained the capacity to delete thousands of emails.
Various investigations and lawsuits eventually uncovered the astonishing breadth of the Bush White House email fiasco, such as the “recycling” of back-up tapes for all of its archived emails between Inauguration Day 2001 and sometime in 2003. This meant, for instance, messages pertaining to the 9/11 terrorist attack went missing of course — along with whatever Rove and his aides might have communicated on that topic, or weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, or countless other topics of public concern.
And former Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose office was also involved in both the Plame and WMD scandals, admitted recently that he used private emails in office — but that he turned over and retained none of them — zero. By contrast, Clinton has turned over tens of thousands of her emails to the department.
Thanks to a federal lawsuit filed by two nonprofit watchdog groups, the National Security Archive at George Washington University and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a small proportion of the missing Bush White House emails were eventually restored — but only when the Obama administration finally settled the case in 2009. Those strict Obama rules for preserving emails (which Clinton stands accused of ignoring) resulted directly from the new administration’s determination to avoid the mess engendered by the deceptive and unlawful preservation practices of the Bush White House.
So if Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email account is so shocking to the Beltway media, why did they barely notice (and care even less) when millions of emails disappeared during the Bush years?
The current hysteria may reflect the intense press prejudice against Clinton that several well-placed Washington journalists confessed during a brief moment of introspection following the disgraceful coverage of her 2008 campaign. And it should serve to warn voters that what Gene Lyons famously called “the Clinton rules” — which encouraged all varieties of inaccuracy, bias journalistic failure in the 1990s — simply never went away.