I have a family member who told me recently he could never, under any circumstances, vote for Hillary Clinton. The reason? Because his cousin knows a guy who knows a ward member who was a member of Mrs. Clinton’s Secret Service detail. And you wouldn’t believe the stories of depravity! Another friend of mine told me the same thing; her cousin has friends, good LDS people, I was assured, who know a Secret Service agent, and who had stories of literally hundreds of women smuggled into the White House for sexual trysts with Hillary Clinton. The Clintons have an open marriage, you see. And now, there’s one Gary Byrne, also former Secret Service, who declares himself ‘sickened’ by the horrible stuff he saw when serving in the Clinton White House in the ’90s, which he just had to put into print, now, twenty years later.
Byrne’s book has been hotly condemned by the non-partisan Association of Former Agents of the U. S. Secret Service. They point out that Byrne was a uniformed security officer, not part of the Clintons’ detail, and thus not in a position to have seen what he claims to have seen. Plus, Byrne’s book puts him, an obscure low-level agent that most of agents at the time barely remember, at the center of events. Byrne’s publisher, Center Street, is a Christian imprint that also does all kinds of rabidly right-wing political books, and that is also known for paying pretty well. Did Byrne make it all up? Was he passing on gossip? Because it’s easy enough to dismiss the possibility that he might be telling the truth.
Remember the Arkansas state troopers? Back in ’93, two troopers who had been assigned as security for then-governor Clinton claimed that they had arranged sexual liaisons for Clinton, an expose first published in American Spectator. David Brock, author of that article, later apologized to Bill Clinton, saying that the troopers in question were in it for the cash, and calling them ‘slimy.’
The fact is, we don’t actually know very much about most public figures. What we see is a carefully crafted image. And it’s shocking when we learn of ugly incidents or facts or opinions that contradict the family-friendly portraits we’re used to. We initially refuse to believe it. Bill Cosby can’t have done that. What, Tiger Woods? But John Edwards seems so wholesome.
But with someone like Hillary Clinton, there’s a huge incentive for some unscrupulous people to paint her in the worst colors imaginable. Gossip can go viral. And if the source is putatively someone like a Secret Service agent, someone in a position to see all sorts of, well, secrets, all the better. That’s why all this gossip comes from someone’s best friends’ cousin’s neighbor’s nephew. It sounds authoritative.
I don’t believe any of it, though. First of all, all these stories fit too neatly into pre-existing sexist narratives. Byrne’s book describes Hillary Clinton as a raging harridan, a foul-mouthed and abusive queen bitch. No one else ever describes her that way, but it’s easy to believe, because it fits a specific cultural stereotype. The other ‘secret service’ narrative fits a different stereotype: she’s sexually voracious, a (shudder) lesbian. Also, in one particularly nasty bit of slander I’ve heard, Hillary Clinton’s a poisoner, a murderess akin to Livia Drusilla, the supposedly lethal second wife of Caesar Augustus. (Her Secret Service codename was Livia, it seems. Except it wasn’t, of course).
There’s never any corroborating evidence for any of this. And there should be. If Hillary Clinton was indeed foul-mouthed and violent, there should be dozens of similar stories from former employees, associates, acquaintances, former friends. Especially given, let’s face it, a voracious tabloid press in this country willing to pay big bucks for any verifiable Clinton nastiness. By the same token, according to my friend’s story, Hillary smuggled hundreds of sexual partners into the White House. Well, White House visitors are logged. Those logs are public information. Shouldn’t be hard to prove, or disprove that specific allegation. (And, of course, it turns out to be bonkers).
This election is going to get nasty. It’s already been nasty, and it’s very likely to get nastier. Donald Trump is going to be subjected to attack ads. Probably, if the ads they’re running right now are any indication, they’ll just use his own words against him; that shouldn’t be difficult. But Hillary will be attacked too, and probably a lot of the attacks will take place under the national political radar. Expect to see viral emails. Expect an increase in this kind of gossip. There will certainly be more anti-Hillary books. And Trump’s use of social media in this cabin has been unparalleled. And he loves conspiracy theories.
As I’ve talked to many friends about this election, the main reaction from most people is to express their dismay for the two major party candidates. And national polling suggests that most Americans are as appalled with Secretary Clinton as they are with Mr. Trump. When you ask what their problem is with Clinton, they say, ‘she’s corrupt, she’s dishonest, she’s crooked.’ But then you ask for specifics. And they’ll say something like ‘Benghazi’ or ‘her emails,’ so-called ‘scandals’ that were thoroughly investigated, and in which Mrs. Clinton was cleared.
The distrust of Clinton is, in other words, inchoate, non-specific. It’s just ‘what everyone knows.’ You hear vague references to ‘all those scandals.’ If you point out that non-partisan fact-checkers have declared her the most honest politician in this election, they stare at you in incredulity. Surely, that can’t be true. Surely, I have to be kidding.
I’m worried about this election being decided in the shadows, in the murky darkness of gossip, slander, rumors and innuendos. That’s why these ridiculous Secret Service stories are so dangerous, and need to be challenged.
That’s why it’s so important, this year above all others, for fact-checkers to do their jobs. That’s why it is so important that we all vigilantly ask for evidence, for solid, corroborating proof of any particularly nasty allegation. Because this political year is about to get ugly. Hold on to your hat.