Posted on December 01, 1997 in Washington Watch

The story alleging that the Clinton Administration sold burial plots in Arlington National Cemetery surfaced, gained national prominence and was proven false last week.

How the story unfolded was a classic example of the way the right wing has been working during the past several years to plant stories to smear their enemies.

The pattern is a familiar one. A story is planted in the right-wing press, then faxed to the national network of right-wing radio talk shows. After feeding the story to
millions of listeners and agitating them to call their Congressional representatives, some members of Congress react. All that is required is for one member of Congress to call for a formal investigation and the story becomes a national news item that must then be covered by the more respectable national newspapers and TV network news broadcasts.

At this point what began as a baseless allegation takes on a life of its own and becomes a major issue to which the White House must respond.

This is how the “burial plot” story unfolded last week.

On the first day, Insight Magazine, a right-wing publication, printed a story alleging that the Clinton White House sold burial plots at Arlington National Cemetery (the resting place of our nation’s deceased war veterans). According to the story, “dozens of big-time political donors and friends of the Clinton’s” were given White House waivers to be buried at the cemetery. The story alleges that those who were given permission to be buried were “unqualified people.” The story charged that such a practice was an “outrage” and said, “somebody over at the White House ought to be convicted for selling America’s most sacred property.”

The story, which presented no names or evidence to prove the allegations, was faxed to talk radio shows across the United States. That same day and the following day, listeners were presented with the story as if it were true.

On the first day, a U.S. representative who also chairs the congressional committee that oversees the cemetery, announced that his committee would investigate the matter. On day two of the story, two prominent senators called for a Senate investigation as well. By now, the nation’s mainstream press was reporting the story as yet another White House scandal, with senators calling for hearings and representatives threatening to subpoena evidence from the White House.

Right-wing columnists stepped up the rhetorical attack with some calling for the “end of this scandal-ridden Administration.”

Three days into the erupting scandal, the White House, outraged over the growing lie, released the names of all that had been buried in the cemetery, including those who had been given special waivers by the President.

Of the 58 names of those who had been given waivers by the Secretary of the Army, almost all were the wives of former military officers who were entitled to be buried next to their veteran husbands.

The four waivers that had been personally given by the President were for a Supreme Court Justice, the wife of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a Washington, DC police officer killed in the line of duty and a Drug Enforcement Agency officer killed on duty.

The story turned out to be no story at all – just a failed effort at a smear.

In many ways, this story is symptomatic of the problems facing the White House these days. There are currently 20 Congressional and Senate committees investigating similarly baseless charges against the President and Vice President. The costs to the taxpayers have exceeded $50 million – with no evidence of any actual laws being broken. But the allegations and investigations themselves persist and have come to occupy the time not only of the Congress in its relentless pursuit to damage the White House, but the White House itself which has been forced to spend significant energy and expense to respond to the many charges hurled against them.

Equally victimized in all of this has been the American public, whose confidence in its government has been damaged and who have become increasingly cynical in the face of these mostly political games.

My outrage to all of this is personal, since I can speak from experience at the effect that these smear campaigns can have.

Arab American and Muslim American leaders have been targets for many years of the same abusive efforts. Recently the very same right-wing press was working hard to discredit myself and an Arab American nominated for an ambassadorial post by President Clinton. And just last week, a writer in a prominent Jewish newspaper attempted to malign me and demand that the White House no longer deal with me because of hostile views he maintained I hold.

In both cases, those threatening efforts to smear failed. Despite attempts to engage the Senate in investigating baseless and false charges, the entire U.S. Senate confirmed the Arab American ambassadorial appointment. And Arab Americans continue to be defended and supported by the White House.

The smear campaign has become normal political practice in today’s politics. They take a toll, and they are painful to endure. But they must be combated and won—because to surrender is to allow one’s enemies to win.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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