It is two years before the next presidential election, but the anti-Hillary hit squad is already revving up its engines. Fox News and the rest of the right-wing echo chamber (Rush Limbaugh and his ilk), the conservative think tanks, magazines, and websites, and each of the Republican presidential wannabes as well as the Republican National Committee have "opposition" researchers looking for ammunition to attack Hillary Clinton in the hopes of manufacturing a controversy or scandal that will undermine her candidacy.
A few weeks ago a freelance journalist named Edward Klein left a message on my voicemail, asking if he could interview me for a book he's writing about the presumptive Democratic candidate for president. He finally reached me at home this week and we talked for about 20 minutes about Clinton's prospects.
I'd never heard of Klein before, so I did a bit of Google-ing. On the phone, he described himself as having a "center right" perspective, but what appears more accurate is that he's moved from the center to the right. A former reporter for UPI and a one-time editor at Newsweek and the New York Times magazine, he either kept his right-wing views quiet while working in the mainstream media or has moved rightward since becoming a freelancer. In a profile of Klein for The Guardian that questions Klein's journalistic integrity, reporter Jon Swaine quotes Klein's former Times colleague Max Frankel suggesting that Klein's embrace of conservatism was, at least initially, more a matter of opportunism than conviction. "I just think he has decided he could make a lot of money on that side of the street," Frankel said, "so he has gone over there."
Now Klein is a regular on the conservative speakers' circuit (such as a gig at this year's annual meeting of the misnamed Accuracy in Media, a right-wing outfit), and an occasional guest of ultra-conservative talk shows hosts like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. At the 2012 Freedom Fest, a gathering of reactionary authors and readers, Klein fulminated that as a young man Obama was steeped in Islam and converted to Christianity primarily to pursue a career in politics. The crowd ate it up.
When I asked Klein if he already had a contract for his next book, he told me that Regnery Publishing was going to bring out his tome on Hillary. Regnery is a Washington, D.C.-based outfit that specializes in right-wing books, especially books that engage in hyperbolic, sensationalist, and lunatic condemnations of liberals and Democrats.
Since Henry Regnery founded it in 1947, the company has had an ignoble history. It published two books by Robert Welch, who became the founder of the John Birch Society as well as Phyllis Schlafly's A Choice, Not an Echo, her 1964 ode to Barry Goldwater. Regnery's new edition of Schlafly's book features a forward by Ron Paul.
Regenery's more recent contributions to American political thought includes John E. O'Neill and Jerome R. Corsi's Unfit for Command (their attack on John Kerry's record as a soldier in Vietnam), Newt Gingrich's To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine, Dinesh d'Souza's Obama's America and The Roots of Obama's Rage, The Case Against Barack Obama by David Freddoso (a reporter for the National Review),and the always insightful Ted Nugent's Ted, White and Blue. Its list of authors of reads like a who's who of the right-wing lunatic fringe as well as other lunatics like Gingrich, Michelle Malkin, Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, and Pat Buchanan who've morphed themselves into the conservative mainstream.
Regnery clearly has a thing about the Clintons. Its website lists at least 16 books attacking Bill and/or Hillary Clinton, including Amanda Carpenter's The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy's Dossier on Hillary Clinton, which is described as "Your one-stop guide to everything Hillary Clinton and her handlers don't want you to know."
Regnery published Klein's two most recent books -- Blood Feud: The Clintons vs. the Obamas (2014) and The Amateur: Barack Obama in the White House (2012). Other publishers released his earlier books, including several books about the Kennedy family and The Truth About Hillary: What She Knew, When She Knew It, and How Far She'll Go to Become President (2005). In other words, Klein's been obsessed with Hillary for at least a decade.
Klein's The Truth About Hillary got less than a friendly reception, even from Klein's fellow conservatives. In his New York Post review (titled "Smear for Profit"), columnist John Podhoretz wrote:
Thirty pages into it, I wanted to take a shower. Sixty pages into it, I wanted to be decontaminated. And 200 pages into it, I wanted someone to drive stakes through my eyes so I wouldn't have to suffer through another word.
In the National Review, James Geraghty wrote:
Folks, there are plenty of arguments against Hillary Clinton, her policies, her views, her proposals, and her philosophies. This stuff ain't it. Nobody on the right, left, or center ought to stoop to this level.
Peggy Noonan, former Reagan speechwriter and Wall Street Journal columnist, described Klein's book as "poorly written, poorly thought, poorly sourced."
The more mainstream website Politico called out the book's "serious factual errors, truncated and distorted quotes and overall themes [that] don't gibe with any other serious accounts of Clinton's life." In a long review of The Truth About Hillary, Media Matters for America excoriated the book peddling "unsubstantiated sexual innuendo" and using "outright factual errors." The Boston Globe called Klein's book "devoid of credibility." The Tuscon Citizen described it as the "literary equivalent of a backed-up septic tank." Reviewing the book for the New York Times, Joe Queenan wrote:
[I]f Klein purposely set out to write the sleaziest, most derivative, most despicable political biography ever, he has failed both himself and his readers miserably. 'The Truth About Hillary' is only about the 16th sleaziest book I have ever read. Though, in fairness to the author, reading creepy, cut-and-paste books is my hobby.
So I wondered what new angle Klein had in mind for his next book on the former First Lady, U.S. Senator, and Secretary of State.
Klein told me that the "hypothesis" for his book is that Hillary is too "unlikable" to be elected president and he wanted to know if I agreed.
I told Klein that I agreed with Barack Obama who, during one of their debates in the 2008 Democratic primaries, said that Hillary was "likable enough." In fact when it comes to likeability, I'd much rather have a beer with Hillary than with any of the likely GOP candidates -- Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, Rob Portman, Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, or Mike Huckabee. And with regard to competence and public service, none of the Republican hopefuls comes even close to Hillary's achievements.
I also told Klein that I thought Hillary was a shoo-in for the Democratic Party nomination and that none of the would-be Republican candidates could beat her. They are either too far right, or have other liabilities (Christie's bridge scandal and Rick Perry's stupidity, for example) to win enough independent and moderate voters to defeat her.
I am not a Hillary acolyte. In 2008 I supported John Edwards (mea culpa), then Obama, over Hillary. I even wrote a Huffington Post piece criticizing Hillary's top strategist Sidney Blumenthal for engaging in outrageous red-baiting against Obama -- a column that generated a lot of media buzz at the time. I'm a big fan of Elizabeth Warren, but I doubt she can beat Hillary in 2016. Rather than tarnish her reputation by running an uphill campaign that she's likely to lose, I'd prefer that Warren wait to run for the White House until Clinton has had her chance.
I also told Klein that it is highly unlikely that he or any other opposition researchers will find any new "dirt" on Hillary that hasn't already been exposed and dismissed. Hillary's background -- as a teenage Republican from Illinois, a Wellesley College student leader, a Yale Law School graduate, an attorney working for the Children's Defense Fund, then for the House Committee on the Judiciary during the Watergate scandal and then in private practice in Arkansas, as First Lady of Arkansas and then in the Clinton White House, and as a U.S. Senator from New York -- was fully vetted during the 2008 election.
The various efforts by the professional Clinton-haters to demonize Hillary -- over the phony Whitewater controversy, or accusations that she's a lesbian (which was one of Klein's own inventions), or her somewhat sympathetic senior college thesis on Saul Alinsky -- have already been exposed to the light and rejected by the public. Klein agreed, too, that Bill Clinton's sex scandal with Monica Lewinsky is old news and, if anything, probably generates sympathy for Hillary. In fact, Klein reluctantly acknowledged that Bill Clinton is one of the nation's most popular public figures and that, if anything, he is more an asset than a liability when it comes to his wife's presidential ambitions.
Clinton's major activity since 2008 has been her service as the Secretary of State. Despite the efforts of the conservative media echo chamber and the Republican attack squad, there's a general agreement that her tenure at State produced no major scandal, even among those who disagree with the specific direction of U.S. foreign policy during that period. The GOP and the conservative media will surely try, once again, to blame Clinton for the bombing of the U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi in 2012, but the American public isn't buying what the Republicans are selling.
The Koch brothers and other right-wing billionaires will no doubt pour lots of money into the conservative echo chamber's efforts to attack Hillary's character and credibility -- employing whatever lies, half-truths, and framing devices they can to upend her path to the White House -- but I don't think they will succeed.
Based on his past track record, Klein hopes to find (or manufacture) some scandal that will help sell his forthcoming book and help undermine Hillary's presidential campaign. Why else would Regnery give him a contract? But when I asked Klein what he objected to about Hillary besides not being "likeable" enough, he had little to say except that he didn't think she had the "vision" to be president.
Which of the current crop of GOP stalwarts did he support, I asked Klein. Without much enthusiasm, he mentioned Jeb Bush, but then admitted that although the First Brother could probably raise a lot of money, he would have a hard time winning the Republican nomination because, Klein said, of his views on several issues (immigration and the Core Curriculum) and unnamed issues surrounding his family.
Of course, it is possible that Klein wasn't being entirely candid with me about his favorite GOP candidate or his belief that Hillary's major political handicap is her "likability" factor. Why should he? He doesn't know me, we apparently don't agree on very much, and I didn't give him what he was looking for, which was a quote or two from a liberal political observer that he could use in his book to attack Hillary.
Klein told me several of his political books have made it to the New York Times bestseller list. I didn't bother to ask him whether they were categorized as fiction or non-fiction. Toward the end of our conversation, however, I did ask Klein why he called me, as I’m not really an expert on Hillary Clinton. He responded, “I can’t remember how I got your name.” Either Klein is a liar or a terrible note-taker –- but either explanation would make sense in light of his journalistic track record. Regardless of how he found me, I’m sure his next book will only be a small cog in the right-wing attack machine that hopes to bulldoze Hillary's candidacy and restore America to the greatness it enjoyed under George W. Bush.
Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. He is the coauthor of three books on urban politics and policy and author of The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012).