The Indictment That Made Bill Clinton President
In the wake of FBI Director James Comey’s decision to reopen the Hillary Clinton email probe, there has been an explosion of Clinton and media criticism alleging that the investigation could influence the outcome of the election. And at a rally in Florida on Saturday, Secretary Clinton emphatically charged that Comey’s action was “unprecedented.”
Contrary to her claim, she herself contributed to an even bigger influence on an election: the October surprise four days before Election Day in 1992 that helped then-Gov. Bill Clinton defeat then-President George H.W. Bush. This event was the last-minute indictment of Caspar Weinberger, which the Clintons and the press turned into an indictment of Bush. (The prosecutor himself later claimed credit for having affected the outcome of the election.)
As the 1992 race drew to a close, the polls tightened dramatically, and, in spite of the presence of third-party spoiler Ross Perot, it looked as though Bush would pull it off and win reelection.
Then things started to get strange. Out of the blue, Bill Clinton spent a full day early in the last week of the campaign aggressively accusing George Bush of being a liar. This marked a dramatic shift in the tone of his campaigning. The New York Times took note and described how a stump speech Clinton gave in Louisville, Ky., “marked the climax of a day devoted to the Clinton campaign’s most concentrated effort to date to turn against Mr. Bush the issue of trust that the Republicans had used against Mr. Clinton.”
In Louisville, Clinton said, “Every time Bush talks about trust, it makes chills run up and down my spine.” He also added, “The very idea that the word ‘trust’ could come out of Mr. Bush’s mouth, after what he’s done to this country and the way he’s trampled on the truth, is a travesty of the American political system.” At a different rally, in Houston, Clinton told his supporters, “There’s just no such thing as truth when it comes to him.” And Clinton claimed on NBC’s Today show, “he has gotten away with the most flagrant distortions of the truth in this campaign that I have ever seen.” These attacks seemingly came out of nowhere.
For evidence, Clinton quoted editorials from the New York Times, Sacramento Bee, Portland Oregonian, and Minneapolis Star-Tribune that argued that Bush couldn’t be trusted. Essentially, the New York Times reported that Bill Clinton reported that the New York Times reported that Bush was a liar. That evening on Larry King Live, King asked Clinton directly, “Are you calling the president a liar?” to which Clinton replied, “I’m reading what these newspapers said.” Per his own admission, Clinton and the newspapers were working in tandem.
Given that Bush was known for his sterling character and Clinton was known as “Slick Willie,” it was a bold move for Clinton to do this. The media tried to give a rational explanation for Clinton’s accusations. They claimed that his feelings had been hurt by mean Bush political ads. The Times explained, “Mr. Clinton, aides said, was driven to attack by radio advertisements the Bush campaign has in recent days spread across battleground states in the South and the Midwest.” Newsweek identified one specific television ad that they claimed spurred Clinton’s accusations, writing:
What spooked them [the Clinton campaign] was the sheer, scorched-earth ferocity of Bush’s assault. Its epiphany was the president’s closing attack ad, picturing Arkansas as a wasteland while a narrator did a savage recital of Clinton’s record there; the closing shot showed a buzzard perched on a barren tree.
They added that “for a day or two it rattled Clinton, knocking him off his own message and onto the president’s strongest ground.” But in criticizing the ad, the Newsweek reporters observed it was “only too obviously overstated, and focus groups laughed [it] off.” But if the ad was a flop, why would it have influenced Clinton’s campaign strategy? It defies logic to suggest that Clinton was driven to attack Bush’s character by an ineffective political ad.
So the question remains: what prompted Bill Clinton to call George H.W. Bush a liar?
The answer to this question arrived two days later—the Friday before the Tuesday election—when Lawrence Walsh, the special prosecutor for the Iran-Contra affair, indicted Reagan Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger for the second time in four months. The Iran-Contra affair had plagued Ronald Reagan for much of his presidency, but the prosecutor failed to discover any evidence of criminality on the part of the White House.
The reindictment included notes from Weinberger’s diary that fleetingly mentioned George Bush’s attendance at a meeting and appeared to contradict something Bush had previously said, but not in a way that had any legal significance. And Walsh himself writes in his memoir, “the story of the meeting was not new.”
Apart from the Clinton-media hype, the whole reindictment was flaky to begin with. It involved just one of five counts from the original June 1992 indictment, four counts of which were still pending. The count in question was beyond the statute of limitations, as the judge later ruled. Walsh claimed he was under some unidentified court schedule, but he should have requested an extension, which would have been difficult if not impossible for a judge to deny under the circumstances.
Nevertheless, the media and the Clintons seized upon the indictment to bludgeon Bush. The Associated Press claimed that the indictment “contradicted President Bush’s claim he never knew that arms were being traded for hostages in the Iran-Contra affair or that two Cabinet members were opposed to the deal.” In the New York Times, Anthony Lewis pummeled Bush, asking, “How does George Bush live with the knowledge of his disregard for truth in politics?” The indictment monopolized the news the weekend before Election Day, and Bush’s upward trend in the polls came to an abrupt end.
As president, Bush had considerable successes in the realm of foreign policy, but he stood accused of a criminal foreign-policy act. Thus, the press reaction wasn’t just any condemnation of Bush. It was a condemnation of Bush in his wheelhouse. Moreover, in spite of Bush’s being a decorated World War II veteran, the press had long used his admirable personal qualities to depict him as a “wimp.” Now they were stripping him of these attributes altogether.
The same day the indictment fell, the Clinton campaign emailed its supporters a press release by George Stephanopoulos (Clinton’s communications director) claiming that the indictment was a “smoking gun showing that George Bush lied to the American people about his role in the arms-for-hostages affair.” But the press release was dated the day before the indictment was filed. Also, the two-and-a-half-page, single-spaced release quoted material from twelve different sources: transcripts and articles and a book ranging in date of publication from March 1987 to October 1992. It is difficult to think that they would have been able to pull together such disparate materials, including a quotation from page 244 of Bush’s book Looking Forward, in a matter of hours. Obviously, the Clintons knew ahead of time what the special prosecutor was going to do.
On the evening of the indictment, Bush appeared on Larry King Live, and one of the calls King took was actually from Stephanopoulos, who hammered Bush over Weinberger’s diary notes. After a couple minutes of volleying back and forth, Bush commented about Stephanopoulos, “It’s wonderful how his call gets in,” which elicited cheers from the studio audience. This incident, coupled with King’s weak defense for having taken the call—“We don’t have a private number, we really don’t, I don’t control the calls”—offers further evidence of collaboration between the Clintons and the press.
In his memoirs, Walsh feigns cluelessness about the indictment and its impact. In addition to acknowledging that the Bush reference contained nothing new, he claims of the Weinberger diary notes, “I did not think the quotation would be newsworthy, despite its reference to President Bush.” Walsh reacts to Stephanopoulos’s attack on Bush on Larry King Live, stating, “Although I was not a Bush partisan, I did not want him hurt unfairly.” He then muses:
As I sat with my wife watching the president falter on national television, incredibly I found myself thinking of Tolstoy’s classic narration of the events leading up to the battle of Borodino, which emphasized the role of happenstance in massive operations and a turning point of history. Was it possible that, after six years of contentious, costly, and painstaking effort, the independent counsel could affect the outcome of a presidential election through sheer inadvertence?
While professing that it never occurred to him that the indictment would touch the election, Walsh flatters himself, essentially claiming that, without even trying, he had changed the course of history—and by citing King and Stephanopoulos, he acknowledges the media and the Clintons for helping make this happen.
Six weeks after the indictment was filed, on December 11, 1992, a federal district judge threw it out. The New York Times reported that Judge Thomas F. Hogan “said the new charge violated the five-year statute of limitations in the Iran-contra case and improperly broadened the original indictment that was filed in June against Mr. Weinberger.” On January 20, 1993, William Jefferson Clinton was sworn in as the 42nd president of the United States.
As the press continues to fuss over Comey’s “unprecedented” actions, it is worth remembering that they are wrong, and that they were largely responsible for giving us the Clintons in the first place. And as for Secretary Clinton’s emphasis on the “unprecedented” nature of these circumstances, it raises further questions about her memory, or her dishonesty, or both.
C. Boyden Gray served as White House counsel under President George H.W. Bush and as U.S. ambassador to the European Union under President George W. Bush. Elise Passamani earned her doctorate in French literature from the University of Oxford in 2015.