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The Olson Reversal

By Brendan Nyhan (brendan@spinsanity.org)
May 14, 2001
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Once again, a political figure has made misleading statements under oath. But this time, the person in question is Bush Solicitor General nominee Ted Olson, not President Clinton - and several of the conservative pundits who condemned Clinton's misleading testimony in the Paula Jones case have discovered a new perspective on rhetorical deception. Hilariously, Rush Limbaugh even blamed the controversy on a "giant left-wing conspiracy".

The Arkansas Project and the current controversy

Olson is an attorney and prominent conservative who argued on behalf of then-Governor Bush in the Supreme Court during the election controversy. Between 1993 and 1998, he served as a legal counsel to and was otherwise involved with The American Spectator, a conservative magazine. During this period, the Spectator was operating the "Arkansas Project", a massive investigation into possible scandals in Clinton's past. In 1996, Olson became a member of the Spectator's board and later joined a successful vote to shut down the project. Critics raised allegations of wrongdoing (including payments to a Whitewater witness) that were examined by a Justice Department official in 1999, but no illegalities were proved.

Olson's alleged involvement in the Arkansas Project is directly relevant to his nomination. Not only do legitimate questions remain about the project itself, but Olson is arguably the most political nominee ever for solicitor general, the so-called "Tenth Justice" who represents the executive branch in the Supreme Court.

Thus, during a confirmation hearing in April, Democrats on the Judiciary Committee asked Olson whether he was involved with the project at any time. He denied the charges, telling the committee, "I was not involved in the project, in its origin or its management" besides his involvement as a board member in 1998. And he specifically denied that any project meetings took place in his office.

However, in response to more detailed questions, Olson has since recalled meetings in his office about the financial status of the project in his office in 1997. He also offered this hedged, legalistic response to a question asking if the one of first meetings of the project took place in his office in late 1993 or early 1994:

I do not recall the meeting described... I certainly was not involved in any such meeting at which a topic was using Scaife funds [Richard Mellon Scaife, a conservative millionaire, funded the project through two educational foundations] and The American Spectator to 'mount a series of probes into the Clintons and their alleged crimes in Arkansas.'

In addition, Olson confirmed his co-authorship of a 1994 anti-Clinton Spectator article that the Spectator paid his law firm for with project money.

Following a Washington Post article on questions about Olson's testimony, including new allegations about Olson's involvement in additional project meetings, Senate Judiciary chair Orrin Hatch postponed a vote on Olson's nomination Thursday.

A new conservative perspective on misleading testimony

Right now, the key issue is the legitimacy of looking into Olson's statements further, not whether he has told the truth (no one knows enough to make a judgment). It certainly seems reasonable to investigate whether a potential Solicitor General told the truth in his confirmation hearing about explicitly political actions in his past.

But, as Olson's nomination has come into question, leading Clinton impeachment advocates Bill Kristol, Rush Limbaugh and the Wall Street Journal editorial board have circled the wagons. This time around, Kristol, Limbaugh and the Journal are not condemning misleading testimony under oath in fact, they are arguing against what they are calling a persecution of Olson.

Take Friday's Wall Street Journal editorial, which railed against "demonization" and the "smear" against Olson. The Journal attempts to reframe the issue as an attack on "the exercise of The American Spectator's First Amendment rights" by "the still-embittered Beltway Democratic machine". It also points out that the investigation of the project found nothing illegal in a second attempt to shift the focus away from Olson's testimony (note: Joshua Micah Marshall and I both noted the Journal's misleading slant the morning the editorial was published).

Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol used similar tactics on Fox News Thursday ("Special Report", 5/10). He alleged persecution: "The Democrats are after Ted Olson... If you have contacts with anti-Clinton groups, presumably you can't be confirmed for a position in a Republican administration". And he attempted to reframe the issue as whether Olson broke the law: "[W]hat is the charge? No illegality has been charged."

Rush Limbaugh, however, went the furthest, descending into virtual self-parody with his attack on his radio show Friday against a "giant left-wing conspiracy" out to destroy Olson (Windows Media Player audio / written summary on RushLimbaugh.com):

There is a giant left-wing conspiracy that's operating here and today its avowed purpose is the destruction of Theodore Olson... [Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy] and his journalistic hit men are working in concert here to destroy Olson purely and simply because he succeeded in the arguments before the Supreme Court last fall. Purely and simply, that's all this is. And because Olson's a conservative...

The sum total of this so-called "conspiracy" is a handful of articles and one postponed confirmation vote - Olson has received very little scrutiny compared to Clinton, who was the target of ceaseless attacks from a network of anti-Clinton activists (including Limbaugh).

Regardless of whether Olson is vindicated, these pundits should not be. Their transparently hypocritical spin is an embarrassment to everyone who claimed that impeachment was an act of principle.

[Update (5/14 - 3:45 PM EST):
This morning, the Washington Times reports that Republicans are claiming that Olson is likely to be confirmed in a vote on Thursday, while the Wall Street Journal reports that committee Democrats may ask for a "quick, bipartisan investigation". Salon.com is featuring an article on Olson's misleading testimony to Congress in the mid-1980s. Also of note: On Saturday, Fred Barnes went even farther than Limbaugh, trotting out the hoary McCarthyism charge that has come into increasing use by conservatives recently: "This is liberal McCarthyism, trying to tar him by some tie to a conservative group" ("Beltway Boys," FNC, 5/12). Joining Barnes in defense of Olson this weekend were David Limbaugh, who joined his brother in attacking Olson's critics yesterday, and Kate O'Beirne of the National Review on CNN's "Capital Gang" Saturday.]

[Update II (5/14 - 5:30 PM EST):
Plastic.com picked up this column - go there to discuss it.]

[Update III (5/15 - 1:35 PM EST):
See my new post on the Olson controversy.]

-Thomas B. Edsall, "Nominee Tied To Attacks On Clintons", Washington Post, May 10, 2001.
-Thomas B. Edsall and Robert G. Kaiser, "Panel Postpones Vote On Olson Nomination", Washington Post, May 11, 2001.
-"The Politics of Demonization", Wall Street Journal, May 11, 2001.
-Bill Kristol, comments on "Special Report", Fox News Channel, May 10, 2001.
-Rush Limbaugh, Rush Limbaugh radio show, May 11, 2001.
http://mfile.akamai.com/5020/asf/rushlimb.download.akamai.com/5020/clips/01/05/051101_2_olson.asx (Windows Media Player clip)

Other sources:
-Daryl Lindsey, "Ted Olson's Arkansas Problem", Salon.com, May 14, 2001
-Gene Lyons, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, "Arkansas Project investigation warranted", May 9, 2001.
-Jake Tapper, "Olson's inconsistencies", Salon.com, May 3, 2001.
-Joe Conason, "Ted Olson's anti-Clinton past", Salon.com, April 5, 2001.

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