08/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Phony Scandals and Fatal Delays

How fitting that Professor Skip's last name is Gates. Thanks to Gates-gate and Birthers, we've taken our eyes off the prize of health care reform, just as lobbyists, their "centrist" shills and desperate GOP pols get into position to administer the fatal poison. Just as it was in 1993-1994, when phony scandals played a significant role in killing Clinton's health care reform. Welcome back to the 1990s, brought to you by our sponsor, the GOP. Now, as it was then, we gawk while health care reform slips away.

Bill Clinton rolled out health care reform on September 22, 1993. His approval rating moved above 50 percent for the first time since his inauguration, and reform was hugely popular. Over the next month, things unfolded not too differently from this year's battle. As the Congressional deal-making proceeded and industry saturated the airwaves with negative ads, support for reform and the president slipped, but remained in positive territory. Congress adjourned, committed to passing legislation after the recess.

While Congress was on break, in December, the conservative American Spectator published David Brock's article on "Troopergate," made possible by funding from Richard Mellon Scaife's "Arkansas Project." The New York Times and the Washington Post resurrected the Whitewater affair, having been gulled by an indicted felon backed by the anti-Clinton group Citizens United. Meanwhile, on the Right, many people insisted that the Clintons had arranged for the murder of their friend, White House counsel Vince Foster. (Joe Conason and Gene Lyons' The Hunting of the President is the best account of the sordid right wing conspiracies and bogus scandals.)

David Brock -- who later disavowed the Troopergate article and bravely apologized for his years as a "right wing hit man" -- described the impact of Troopergate:

The right-wing construct of 'Bill' and 'Hillary' now had 'facts' to back it up ... The piece left such an indelible image in the minds of the media and the public as it led network newscasts and became a staple of Jay Leno monologues and Saturday Night Live skits that it would be possible in the future to say and write and broadcast any crazy thing about the first couple and get away with it.

When Congress returned in January, the Clintons were distracted by their legal fights and damaged personally by the multiple attacks. Health care reform started to die its slow death.

As Brock's comment suggests, a pliable media was the unwitting accomplice to the politically motivated scandal peddlers. As the late, great journalist Lars-Erik Nelson wrote in 1999:

In the current ethics of the press, there need be no actual misdeed to set the bloodhounds baying; there need be only an appearance, perhaps a slowness or clumsiness in responding to a false charge, and we are off and running.

Nelson's rebuke is even more relevant today than it was then. Yesterday on Google news: 4,189 related news stories on the Gates-gate, 1,018 for health care reform. This morning, 4,286 on polls showing support for reform going down. (I think these polls are being misinterpreted, but that's another blog.)

Here's a modest proposal to all reputable journalists and bloggers. After Thursday's beer fest, stop. Enough of the postmodern story about a story about a story. The weird conspiracy theory of the Birthers and the phony populist outrage of Gates-gate both deserve the silent treatment.