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Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity – David Foster Wallace


Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity

David Foster Wallace

Genre: Mathematics

Price: $2.99

Publish Date: October 4, 2010

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company

Seller: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

"A gripping guide to the modern taming of the infinite." —New York Times Part history, part philosophy, part love letter to the study of mathematics, Everything and More is an illuminating tour of infinity. With his infectious curiosity and trademark verbal pyrotechnics, David Foster Wallace takes us from Aristotle to Newton, Leibniz, Karl Weierstrass, and finally Georg Cantor and his set theory. Through it all, Wallace proves to be an ideal guide—funny, wry, and unfailingly enthusiastic. Featuring an introduction by Neal Stephenson, this edition is a perfect introduction to the beauty of mathematics and the undeniable strangeness of the infinite.

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Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity – David Foster Wallace

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5 Things We’ve Learned About Neil Gorsuch So Far

Mother Jones

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Two days into Neil Gosuch’s confirmation hearings, the proceedings have yielded little insight into the Supreme Court nominee’s views about important legal precedent or landmark cases. In keeping with the tradition of previous nominees, he has declined to give any opinions on past or future cases, or explain his personal views on controversial legal issues from abortion to gay marriage. And he’s sidestepped questions about his work in the Bush Justice Department, which included helping the administration defend torture and denying access to the courts for detainees at Guantanamo. But the hearings have unearthed some more obscure trivia about the 10th Circuit judge. Here are some of the most interesting tidbits that have emerged so far:

He likes David Foster Wallace: Waxing poetic about his view of the law, Gorsuch told the Judiciary Committee: “We’re now like David Foster Wallace’s fish. We’re surrounded by the rule of law. It’s in the fabric of our lives.”

Gorsuch was referring to the story the late writer told in a 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College. “There are these two young fish swimming along,” Wallace told the graduating students, “and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?'”

His confirmation hearing isn’t the first time Gorsuch has referenced Wallace’s fish. He’s invoked it at least once before, in an article for the Harvard Journal of Law and Policy. “If sometimes the cynic in all of us fails to see our Nation’s successes when it comes to the rule of law,” he wrote, “maybe it’s because we are like David Foster Wallace’s fish that’s oblivious to the life-giving water in which it swims.”

He thinks it’s OK for a women to be president even if the founders didn’t: Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) asked Gorsuch about his belief that judges should interpret the Constitution the way the Founders would have written it, better known as originalism, which would seem to make it difficult for the law to adapt to modern life. “I’m not looking to take us back to quill pens and horse and buggies,” Gorsuch told her. But Klobuchar pressed on. She wanted to know how he could square his originalist philosophy with the fact that the Constitution as first written didn’t allow women to vote. “So when the Constitution refers 30-some times to ‘his’ or ‘he’ when describing the president of the United States, you would see that as, ‘Well back then they actually thought a woman could be president even through women couldn’t vote?'” she asked. In response, Gorsuch growled, “Of course women can be president! I’ve got two daughters. I hope one of them grows up to be president.”

He loves The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) opened his questioning of Gorsuch by asking him: “What is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything?” The judge responded with a smile, “42.” Gorsuch explained that the question is a joke he uses to break the ice when swearing in nervous lawyers.

Gorsuch claimed everyone knew the answer to the question because it comes from Douglas Adams’ cult classic novel, The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It was clear that aside from Cruz, most of the senators on the Judiciary Committee had not read the book. “If you haven’t read it, you should,” Gorsuch told them. “It may be one of my daughter’s favorite books. And so, that’s a family joke.” Cruz gave Gorsuch a dreamy look and said that he saw Gorsuch’s Hitchhiker joke as “a delightful example of the humanity of a judge that your record has demonstrated.”

He had a pet goat: In his opening statement Monday, Gorsuch gave a shout out to his daughters, who were home in Colorado watching the hearings on TV. He reminisced about “devising ways to keep our determined pet goat out of the garden,” one of his favorite memories with them.

His kids have engaged in “mutton busting”: Cruz got Gorsuch talking about the Denver rodeo, where he takes his law clerks every year. The spectacle finishes up with the prize steer visiting the lobby of the Brown Palace hotel. As part of the festivities, the rodeo features something called mutton busting—a children’s version of bronco riding, done on sheep instead of bulls—which Gorsuch described like this:

You take a poor little kid, you find a sheep, and you attach the one to the other and see how long they can hold on. And you know, it usually works fine when the sheep has got a lot of wool and you tell them to hold on. I tell my kids hold on monkey style. Really get in there, right? Get around it. Because if you sit upright, you go flying right off. Right? You want to get in. The problem when you get in is that you’re so locked in that you don’t want to let go. Right? So then the poor clown has to come and knock you off the sheep. My daughters got knocked around pretty good over the years.”

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5 Things We’ve Learned About Neil Gorsuch So Far

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What Fools Have Never Heard of Cynthia Ozick?

Mother Jones

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Mention Cynthia Ozick to a group of friends and you’ll likely get a sprawling array of responses. For some, she’s an icon—this camp included the late David Foster Wallace, who famously asserted that she, Cormac McCarthy, and Don DeLillo were America’s premier living fiction writers. Others might give you a blank look. Irrespective of her place in the American canon, Ozick has a distinctive and notable voice. Including her 1966 debut novel, Trust, the lifetime New Yorker has put out 18 books that include poetry, fiction, and criticism, and grapple with capital “t” Themes—Jewish identity, the divine, art’s role in our culture—packaged in some of the most arresting and unforgettable sentences of the past half-century.

Her latest work, Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays, is a powerful collection that laments the downward spiral of the once-exalted literary form. I caught up by email with the 88-year-old Ozick, who still lets no one off easy.

Mother Jones: Does one type of writing hold your heart above all others?

Cynthia Ozick: Yes. The type that I can no longer do. In my 20s and early 30s I was driven to write poetry. In 1992, Epodes, a boxed collection, was published by the Logan Elm Press and Paper Mill, a part of Ohio State University Press, and illustrated by Sidney Chafetz. The paper was hand-milled. My introduction spoke of “the bruises and thwartings and insatiable wantings of the young woman who once wrote these poems in the fever of her desire.” The boxes were crafted by a local dentist. But nowadays, between stories and essays, it is story that claims the fever of my desire.

MJ: After your first novel, it seems as though you gained increased recognition steadily—maybe it felt more like “slowly”—over the years. How might this delayed success have contoured your relationship to acclaim and positive feedback, now that you have 18 books to your name?

CO: How can these words—”recognition,” “positive feedback,” and especially “acclaim” and “success”—stand beside what I’ve so often encountered, which is the seriously diminishing “I never heard of her before”? Certainly your coming into view at this moment counts as highly welcome “positive feedback,” but how many decades have passed in the absence of print interviews such as this one? I offer this not as whine or grievance, which I would furiously deplore, but as simple fact. As for “acclaim” and “success,” they rightly characterize writers with abundant and active international readerships—Alice Munro, for instance, honored by her Nobel, and Philip Roth, long a significant household name. But recognition is something else. Every writer aspires to it, and it comes entirely privately, without public fanfare, each time a piece of work is judged worthy of publication.

Eighteen books? Slim pickin’s. There ought to have been more. Seven years dedicated to the ephemera of theater? Even with the privilege of Sidney Lumet as director? Admittedly an exciting interval. But finally: Ah, waste.

MJ: Back in 1999, David Foster Wallace called you one of the nation’s foremost living writers of fiction. What did that feel like?

CO: I learned of it about a year ago, having stumbled on a photocopy (on the internet) of the flyleaf of, I think, The Puttermesser Papers, on which Wallace had listed a long column of words, apparently new to him, culled from its pages. I was stunned and touched and puzzled. (How could this be?) It put me in mind of similar studious vocabulary lists in Kafka’s notebooks when he was learning Hebrew: Hebrew words laboriously translated into German.

MJ: My impression is that you are disenchanted with the current state of fiction. Can you speak to that? What has gone wrong? Is it a reflection on the literary project itself, the writers, the readers? Who bears the blame?

CO: I can’t claim to be disenchanted “with the current state of fiction” because I read so little of it. My reading is mostly drawn to history—I’ve just finished East West Street, by Phillipe Sands, a study of the origin of the term “genocide” and its influence since—and older novels and stories. Recently I’ve been immersed in the brilliantly rich work of W.D. Howells, and wondered at his neglect, and his dismissal as a minor writer. What’s impossible not to notice, though—it’s all around us—is the diminution of American prose: How pedestrian it has become. Pick up any short story and listen to its voice, the tedious easy vernacular that mistakes transcription for realism. This would display an understandable pragmatism if it were a pandering to common-denominator readers; but it is, in fact, a kind of hifalultin literary ideology, the less-is-more Hemingway legacy put through an up-to-the-minute industrial blender. Also, if ideas are what feed serious literature and arresting language, who today is writing a novel of ideas (which can often mean comedy)? I think of Joshua Cohen. Who else?

MJ: What do you think of literature’s place between the poles of the academy and the reading public? Do you intend to identify with one group over the other?

CO: Much of the academy on the humanities side, English departments in particular, no longer write what can pass for normal English. Judith Butler, for example, has been awarded first prize in the celebrated Bad Writing Contest for a sentence so clotted with incomprehensible barbarisms that it might be taken for the ravings of a fake preacher speaking in tongues. Is it possible that those fellow academics who pretend to have understood her are lying sycophants?

MJ: In the Amazon era, everyone is equally capable of rating a book by clicking between 1 and 5 stars, and books that have the largest median fan base become the most celebrated. Do you think this has changed literature and criticism? Or has it discouraged writers from big, creative risk taking?

CO: Always respecting the exceptions among them, one notes that too many of these consumer reviewers misunderstand the inmost nature of what literature means. It does not mean “liking.” Novels are routinely denigrated when characters are not found to be likable. Is Raskolnikov likable? Is King Lear? The plethora of such naive readers testifies to a failure of imagination—the capacity to see into unfamiliar lives, motives, feelings—and this failure must, at least in part, be the failure of the teaching of literature in the schools. Writers who witness these lame “reviews” may sigh, but no seriously aspiring writer will be discouraged. Somewhere there lives the ideal reader.

MJ: Do you think the infusion of technology writ large has contributed to the fading star of literature and imagination? As in, do you think there has been a value shift from the high-minded literary intellectualism of decades past toward mere entertainment?

CO: Advances in technology neither impede nor augment literature. Would Shakespeare on a computer keyboard surpass his quill’s eloquence? Both Milton and George Eliot were obliged to dip their pens repeatedly, frequently several times within the same sentence. It isn’t the instrument that influences High-Minded or Low-Minded; it’s the quality of Mind itself.

MJ: Do you think potential young writers are being shepherded into the creation of digital products and tech startups because they’re being told that that is the new avenue of creation expression?

CO: I have no answer for this. It’s true that the young who now flock to script writing, or producing and directing, to fulfill the demands of these new devices would, in an earlier period, have been submitting to magazines and working on their first novels. But even in the midst of all these “digital products,” the wonder of it is that there are still so many young writers who continue to believe in the venerable print novel as the corridor to fame and fortune.

MJ: What do you think of reality TV?

CO: Clueless. I’ve never seen it.

MJ: With young writers especially, there’s a fierce sense of disavowal of one’s previous self; something written a year prior feels as if it came from an entirely different person, often one whose work is excruciating even to consider. At your age, do you feel any sense of alienation from your previous selves?

CO: In certain pragmatic choices as a writer, yes, I look back on them as mistakes and wish I had done things differently. I wish I had gone into the Great World to pursue literary journalism, rather than hole up for too many years with an overly ambitious never-to-be-finished novel. I wish I hadn’t been faint-heartedly loyal for more than four decades to an agent whose professionalism was wanting. But all this is external to the writing itself. What I felt then I feel now: the inexorable, unchanging interior hum of doubt and hope.

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What Fools Have Never Heard of Cynthia Ozick?

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The Supreme Court Just Sent a Strong Message About Racism in the Justice System

Mother Jones

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“Nonsense.” That’s how Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. described the contention that Georgia prosecutors had not been motivated by race when they weeded out every potential black juror from a 1987 death penalty trial. Roberts penned the majority opinion in Foster v. Chatman, which reversed a decision by the Georgia Supreme Court that overlooked new evidence of racial discrimination in the trial of Timothy Foster, an African American man, which was a factor leading to his death sentence by an all-white jury.

The case had been pending in the high court for an unusually long time, after being argued in November, suggesting that the justices were torn over how to decide it, particularly after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. But in the end, the eight-member court ruled 7-1 that Georgia prosecutors had unconstitutionally rejected jurors from Foster’s trial based on their race. The lone dissenter was the court’s only African American justice, Clarence Thomas, who sided firmly with state of Georgia.

The case had presented stark evidence of the kind of racial discrimination that pervades the criminal justice system. In 2006, defense lawyers for Foster, who was convicted of murdering a white woman in Butts County, Georgia, pried out of the prosecutors’ office a remarkable file full of documents showing how they had gone about picking a jury for the case.

In notes, prosecutors had highlighted the African Americans on several different lists of potential jurors. On one list, under the heading “Definite NOs,” prosecutors listed six potential jurors, all but one of whom were black. The prosecutors ranked the prospective black jurors in case “it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors.”

As Foster’s lawyer Stephen Bright said after the decision was released on Monday, “this discrimination became apparent only because we obtained the prosecution’s notes which revealed their intent to discriminate. Usually that does not happen. The practice of discriminating in striking juries continues in courtrooms across the country. Usually courts ignore patterns of race discrimination and accept false reasons for the strikes. Even after the undeniable evidence of discrimination was presented in this case, the Georgia courts ignored it and upheld Foster’s conviction and death sentence.”

Foster’s 1987 conviction came just months after the US Supreme Court had issued a decision in Batson v. Kentucky that was supposed to ban racial discrimination in jury selection during what are known as “peremptory strikes.” That’s the mechanism for lawyers in a trial to exclude jurors for no reason. Such strikes have been used extensively to keep minority citizens off juries.

Batson, though, has failed to halt the cherry-picking of all-white juries in criminal cases against black men. That’s largely because prosecutors, when challenged, have learned to justify a decision to kick someone off a jury in “race-neutral” terms, and courts have accepted them. Foster was no exception. Notes in the prosecutors’ file indicated that they focused on the race of the jurors from the outset, as Roberts points out in his opinion. They justified excluding black jurors in his case for such nebulous reasons as “failure to make eye contact” or being defiant. (One of the rejected black jurors, Marilyn Garrett, told me last year that if she wasn’t making eye contact or was defiant with the prosecutors while they were questioning her, it was because “they really were nasty to me.” She said the prosecutors had treated her “like I was a criminal.”)

Roberts didn’t buy the prosecutors’ rationale for ejecting two black jurors in particular, and he methodically ripped holes in their arguments before sending the case back to the lower courts for further proceedings. “Two peremptory strikes on the basis of race are two more than the Constitution allows,” he concluded.

The decision is a forceful blow against racism in the courts, and somewhat unusual coming from the same chief justice who has made a name for himself for helping to dismantle the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action. The Foster decision isn’t going to help Roberts’ reputation among tea partiers, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who have decided the former conservative darling of a chief justice has become a liberal traitor.

Tea partiers should be much happier with the lone dissenter in the case, Thomas. As he often does in death penalty cases, he opened his opinion by focusing from the outset on the victim—in this case, 79-year-old Queen Madge White, whom Thomas noted was sexually assaulted by Foster with a bottle of salad dressing. Far from acknowledging the racist motives in the jury selection, Thomas lambasted the majority ruling for perpetuating a criminal justice system in which “finality” means nothing, and any criminal case can be appealed ad nauseam.

His opinion avoids any acknowledgement of the stark failures of the justice system in recent years, injustices that would have largely remained hidden if the courts had taken Thomas’ strict view of unwavering procedural rules that until recently protected prosecutors in Georgia in Foster’s case from any accountability for their racial discrimination.

The decision in Foster won’t put an end to racial discrimination in jury selection. But it is certainly vindication for the potential jurors, including Marilyn Garrett, who weren’t allowed to fulfill their civic duty all those years ago because of their race. As for Foster, his future is still in limbo. Monday’s decision entitles him to a new trial, with a jury of his peers that hasn’t been tainted by racial discrimination. But that doesn’t guarantee a different outcome. The new Georgia jury may come to the same conclusion as the old one. But if nothing else, his date with the death chamber has likely been put off for many years to come. In the world of death penalty litigation, that counts as a win.

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The Supreme Court Just Sent a Strong Message About Racism in the Justice System

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Black Juror: Prosecutors Treated Me "Like I Was a Criminal"

Mother Jones

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Until I contacted her in Rome, Georgia, on Tuesday, Marilyn Garrett had no idea she had become a minor celebrity in legal circles. Nearly 30 years ago, she briefly served in the jury pool during the capital trial of Timothy Foster, a 19-year-old black man charged with murdering an elderly white woman. The prosecutors dismissed her, along with every other African American called to serve, leaving an all-white jury that convicted Foster and sentenced him to death. On Monday, unbeknownst to her, the 63-year-old played a starring role in US Supreme Court arguments over racial discrimination in jury selection.

The rejection has stuck with Garrett all these years in large part because she felt like the prosecutors treated her “like I was a criminal.” Their interrogation left her in tears, she told me, even though she was just there to do her civic duty. Now she’s gotten a little payback, courtesy of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who channeled Garrett’s outrage in the chamber of the nation’s highest court.

Timothy Foster’s lawyers have long argued that the trial prosecutors illegally removed blacks from his jury pool, but the Georgia courts rejected every one of those arguments. The Supreme Court is now hearing the case thanks to a treasure trove of documents his lawyers discovered in 2006. A public records request unearthed prosecutors’ notes that make a mockery of a jury-selection process that was supposed to ensure racial fairness. (You can read about some of the sordid history here.)

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Black Juror: Prosecutors Treated Me "Like I Was a Criminal"

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Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor Invokes Jailed Relatives to Highlight Racism in Jury Selection

Mother Jones

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Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan has referenced Dr. Seuss to get her point across during oral arguments. Justice Stephen Breyer on Monday drew an analogy to his grandson making excuses to avoid doing homework. Rhetorical devices take all kinds of forms on the bench. But Sonia Sotomayor might be the first justice in recent memory to invoke her own relatives in jail to make a point.

During oral arguments on Monday morning in Foster v. Chatman, a case involving racial discrimination in jury selection, Sotomayor questioned whether a Georgia prosecutor had used a bogus pretext to bounce an African American woman from a jury. The prosecutor had claimed he excused her because the woman’s cousin had been arrested on a drug charge. “There’s an assumption that she has a relationship with this cousin,” Sotomayor told Georgia deputy attorney general Beth Burton, who argued Georgia’s case before the court. “I have cousins who I know have been arrested, but I have no idea where they’re in jail. I hardly—I don’t know them…Doesn’t that show pretext?”

Her comments demonstrate the importance of her role as the first Latina justice on the court, an institution dominated by white men from privileged backgrounds. She asked the sort of question African Americans might welcome from Clarence Thomas, the only black justice, who rarely speaks from the bench. The insights she brings from her formative years in a Bronx public housing project are particularly applicable to racially charged cases like this one.

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Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor Invokes Jailed Relatives to Highlight Racism in Jury Selection

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Black Man Lawfully Carrying Gun Gets Pummeled by White Vigilante at Walmart

Mother Jones

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There is no shortage of debate about whether allowing citizens to carry concealed guns makes society safer. You may be shocked to learn that the answer could depend in part on the color of a citizen’s skin.

Exhibit A this week, from Florida: A surveillance video from a Walmart located near Tampa shows 62-year-old Clarence Daniels trying to enter the store to purchase some coffee creamer for his wife this past Tuesday. He barely steps through the automatic doors before he is pummeled by shopper Michael Foster, a 43-year-old white man.

“He’s got a gun!” Foster shouts, to which Daniels replies, “I have a permit!”

According to local news reports, Foster originally spotted Daniels in the store’s parking lot placing his legally owned handgun underneath his coat. In keeping with Florida’s well-known vigilante spirit, Foster decided to take matters into his own hands by following Daniels into the Walmart. Without warning, he tackled Daniels and placed him in a chokehold.

Police soon arrived and confirmed Daniels indeed had a permit for the handgun.

“Unfortunately, he tackled a guy that was a law-abiding citizen,” said Larry McKinnon, a police spokesperson. “We understand it’s alarming for people to see other people with guns, but Florida has a large population of concealed weapons permit holders.”

Foster is now facing battery charges.

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Black Man Lawfully Carrying Gun Gets Pummeled by White Vigilante at Walmart

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Here Come the Crazy Clinton Conspiracies of the 1990s

Mother Jones

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It’s back. The anti-Clinton craziness of the 1990s. It was inevitable that the right-wing nuttiness of those days would return once Hillary Clinton officially acknowledged her presidential ambitions, but the mere prospect of the former first lady turned senator turned secretary of state seeking the White House has led to a premature—or perhaps preemptive—revival of the old Clinton tales from two decades ago. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a possible 2016 presidential candidate, kicked off the anti-Clinton nostalgia with a series of scolding references to Bill Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Next GOP chairman Reince Priebus tweeted, “Remember all the #Clinton scandals…That’s not what America needs again.” And the Republican party mounted a petition drive (to beef up its email list) that asserted “scandals and controversies follow the Clintons.” Then Fox News upped the ante by booking Kathleen Willey, who has hinted (in a convoluted manner) that the Clintons were involved in the deaths of her husband and Vince Foster, a Clinton White House aide who committed suicide during the first year of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Willey has also claimed that Bill Clinton groped her in the White House and suggested that the Clintons had her cats killed.

For those who lived through the conservative get-Clinton madness that culminated in Clinton’s impeachment (and acquittal), this may seem like a bad acid flashback. Or a truly cheesy sequel. During the Clinton years, there were plenty of reasons to be critical of the first couple: Bill’s calculating centrism, Hill’s byzantine health care proposal that set back the cause of health care reform, Clinton campaign finance abuses, his workplace affair with Monica Lewinsky, scandalous pardons, and more. But conservative forces went far beyond the boundaries of reality in their ceaseless efforts to destroy the Clintons. During the 1992 campaign, some right-wingers whispered that Bill Clinton was a Manchurian candidate who had been brainwashed by the Russians when he was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford and took a student trip to Moscow. Others circulated fliers—this was before the internet hit big—claiming he had fathered the son of an African American prostitute. And there were claims that the Clintons were connected to a major drug-running operation that had been based in Arkansas and tied to a series of murders. Yes, murders. Dozens of murders.

As a draft-dodging, pot-smoking (sure, he inhaled), former long-hair McGovernik, Bill Clinton represented a side in the American political cultural civil war that had raged since the early 1960s, and many on the right could not accept that a citizen of that other America could become the leader of the land. Their disbelief and outrage led to insane outbursts of absurd accusations—and never-ending investigations (on and off Capitol Hill) that sought to uncover the darkest secrets of Bill and Hillary Clinton. This anti-Clinton crusade had two components: what might be called the official conspiracies that were probed by congressional gumshoes and independent counsels, and those that can be considered the outer-limits conspiracies. There was overlap (the Vince Foster suicide conspiracy, for example). But it all blurred into one long swirl that ended up discrediting much of the right and spurring an anti-anti-Clinton backlash that helped Bill Clinton become one of the most popular and successful former presidents and Hillary Clinton become a US senator.

So as once-dormant Clinton derangement syndrome reappears, it might be useful to sort out the swirl. Joe Conason, who cowrote with Arkansas journalist Gene Lyons The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton, offers a short breakdown of the official Clinton conspiracies:

Whitewater: Kenneth Starr spent roughly millions of dollars trying to find evidence of chicanery in a land deal that lost money for the Clintons—and his probe ended up demonstrating their innocence, like several earlier investigations. Having whispered to gullible journalists that he was about to indict Hillary in December 1996, Starr instead abruptly resigned as independent counsel in February 1997, knowing he had no case against her…

Travelgate: Feverish coverage of Hillary Clinton’s firing of several White House employees who handled press travel arrangements neglected some salient facts—such as the suspicious absence of accounting records for millions of dollars expended by the White House Travel Office, the Travel Office director’s offer to plead guilty to embezzlement, and evidence that he had accepted lavish gifts from an air charter company. The First Lady and her staff didn’t handle the controversy skillfully, but she had plenty of reason to suspect chicanery. And again, exhaustive investigation found no intentional wrongdoing by her.

Filegate: Sensational accusations that Hillary Clinton had ordered up FBI background files to target political opponents soon became a Republican and media obsession, with respectable figures warning that Filegate would be the Clintons’ Watergate. “Where’s the outrage?” cried Bob Dole, the 1996 Republican presidential nominee. Starr investigated the matter and found no evidence of wrongdoing. Finally, in 2010, a Reagan-appointed federal judge mockingly dismissed a civil lawsuit based on the allegations, saying “there’s no there there.”

As for the out-there conspiracies, perhaps the best representation of this genre was a documentary called The Clinton Chronicles. The 83-minute-long movie that was released in 1994 alleged that Bill Clinton had an extensive “criminal background” when he was elected president and that this “information” had been kept from voters. (That is, he had been elected on false pretenses.) The Bill Clinton of this movie was a sort of kingpin who had engaged in a multitude of corrupt activities while attorney general and governor in Arkansas; this included involvement in drug-money laundering. Of course, all this corruption continued in the White House. The film—overflowing with demonstrably false accusations—climaxed with the contention that Foster was murdered and that the White House mounted a cover-up to keep this a secret (and to keep a purportedly hidden relationship between Foster and Hillary under wraps). And it wasn’t just Foster. The film noted that others with information about Clinton’s crimes had died mysteriously. A plane crash. A suicide. People were afraid to tell the truth about the Clintons. The film concluded with this warning: “If any additional harm comes to anyone connected with this film or their families, the people of America will hold Bill Clinton personally responsible.” An earlier version of the documentary, Circle of Power, had listed a number of suicides, accidental deaths, and unsolved murders and linked them to the Clintons.

What was most notable about both films was their No. 1 sponsor: Jerry Falwell, a television evangelist and head of the Moral Majority. In the 1990s, he was one of the most prominent leaders of the religious right. And on his weekly television show, he pitched these videos. A fellow who routinely hobnobbed with Republican presidents and politicians was explicitly endorsing the view that the current occupant of the White House was a maniacal and corrupt evildoer who had resorted to murder (on multiple occasions!) to obtain and preserve his power. And you could have proof of this, Falwell noted, for only $40 plus $3 for shipping.

Falwell was not alone. As Conason and Lyons noted in The Hunting of the President, other prominent conservatives were pushing the Clinton-as-killer meme (though no one called it a meme back then). The Council for National Policy, a secretive outfit that included the leadership of the conservative movement, ordered copies of the film for its members. GOP Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), who while pursuing the Foster suicide theory had a watermelon shot in his backyard, invited the narrator of the film, an Arkansan named Larry Nichols, to meet with House Republicans. Nichols became a fixture on right-wing talk radio. William Dannemeyer, a former House GOPer who appears at the end of The Clinton Chronicles to raise money for further investigation, sent members of Congress a letter requesting they probe the mysterious deaths related to Clinton. The conservative editorialists at the Wall Street Journal half-defended the film. Criticizing the documentary for being loaded with unproven charges, they noted, “the Falwell tape and the controversy around it get at something important about the swirl of Arkansas rumors and the dilemma it presents a press that tries to be responsible.” In other words, Clinton was no murderer, but there was value to presenting the overarching, rumors-fueled case that he was sleazy schemer.

How does being accused of murdering political foes (and friends) to cover up criminal deeds (and untoward affairs) compare to being accused of being a foreign-born secret Muslim and covert socialist with plans to destroy America? Political consumers of today who are too young to have experienced the visceral and extreme Clinton hatred of the 1990s might find it tough to imagine the excesses of that era, but they would recognize parallels with the anti-Obama hate machine. Then and now, Republicans in power whipped up investigations (Benghazi!) to satisfy their their angry and resentful base voters and knowingly associated with (and validated) those hurling even more outlandish accusations about a commander-in-chief much detested on the right. To an extent, the Clinton smearers paved the way for the Obama bashers, and some conservative agitators have dutifully served in both camps. Joseph Farah, a leading birther, was a champion of Foster conspiracy theories. In 2007, Fox News host Sean Hannity hosted a special episode on the “mysterious death” of Foster, hinting that the Clintons might have pulled off “a massive cover-up.” Rush Limbaugh, too, has in the past suggested Hillary had Foster killed.

The number of false charges hurled in the 1990s at the Clintons could fill a book. (See Conason and Lyons’.) Like ordnance left over after a war, this ammunition remains ready to be used by conservatives who recoil at the thought of another Clinton in the White House. It doesn’t matter that these bombs are duds. As Fox News showed this week, the Clinton antagonists of years ago and of today will reach for whatever ammo they can find to recreate the impression there was a swirl of Clinton corruption and push a politically useful mantra: Don’t stop thinking about the past.


Here Come the Crazy Clinton Conspiracies of the 1990s

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