by David Corn
Washington, DC, a hotbed of behind-closed-doors intrigue? A city where renegade FBI agents chase after mind-blowing truth that is "out there," where the stop-at-nothing high-and-mighty routinely plot underhanded and intricate schemes that employ the most extreme measures? That is, is Washington anything like the way it is portrayed in movies and airport thrillers?
As the author of a political suspense novel ("Deep Background" -- just out in paperback -- plug, plug), I have long pondered this question. The obvious answer is, of course not.
This town is not that exciting, and anyone who has ever worked here knows that government agencies -- including the CIA, the FBI, the Pentagon's assorted components, the Justice Department, the House, the Senate, the White House -- are all bureaucracies that cannot stand to cooperate with one another, which does render it difficult to mount long-term, wide-ranging conspiracies. Indeed, there is deceitful back-stabbing, Machiavellian deal-cutting, and massive influence peddling.
Just look at Bill Clinton's outrageous, last-minute pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, who fled the United States when faced with a federal indictment for concocting the largest tax evasion in U.S. history. But what's the mystery there? Rich's ex-wife had donated and raised several hundred thousand dollars to benefit the Democrats, and Rich had hired lawyer/lobbyist Jack Quinn, a former White House counsel for Clinton, to pressure the President on his behalf. With money and connections, who needs a cabal? Did Rich have to get Israeli intelligence to blackmail Clinton? No, he just hired a Clinton crony.
In recent days, when people have asked me if Jesse Jackson was done in by a devious rightwing plot (wasn't it suspicious that news of his love child hit the streets just when Jackson was prepping for an anti-inauguration demonstration?) or if the Democrats in the Senate cut a hush-hush arrangement with the Republicans (give us 50-50 representation on committees, and we won't challenge Florida's electoral college returns), I've replied, in both instances, probably not. And then I've been accused of being oh-so naive.
I don't consider myself an innocent. I just doubt The National Enquirer gave a damn about forcing Jackson off the protest-beat. Or that any Jackson foe was able to orchestrate this expose and ensure it made a particular issue of the weekly tabloid. Moreover, word of Jackson's procreative dalliance had spread through portions of the civil rights community a while ago. It was only a matter of time before the sin hit the fan -- most likely courtesy a tip from someone in Jackson's environs rather than a political enemy. Given that Jackson was busy trying to beat back George W. Bush and the Republicans during much of the past year, had the story broken at a different time, one could have made the case that the timing was way-too convenient.
As for the Democratic Senators and Florida's electoral votes, a secret deal was unnecessary. The Democrats could not have successfully challenged Florida's electors. Under the Constitution, it takes both houses of Congress to do that, and the GOP-controlled House was a lock for Katherine Harris's delegation. Also, the leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus, which tried to block the Florida electors, had made no real effort to enlist Democratic Senators in their doomed-to-defeat endeavor. Politics, not intrigue, explained the silence of the Democratic Senators.
And the Supreme Court decision that installed Bush as president? That, too, required no elaborate plotting. Surely, the Bush-backing justices did not have to talk with anyone in the Bush clan to get it right. That's the beauty of a system; when it works properly, there's no need for conspiracy.
But -- here's the plot twist -- did discover a piece of Hollywoodish intrigue in the nation's capitol.
start the tale with the ending: my cell phone rings, I answer it, and a male voice on the other end says, "This is the last time we will ever speak."
Flashback several months. I receive a call from a man who identifies himself as Bruce Seller and then tells me that is not his real name. He leads me to believe he is a Republican who works in Congress. He notes that he has read articles I have written addressing the uncomfortable issue of reporting on the personal lives of politicians. (My position: pols who claim to represent family values but who covertly cheat on their spouses deserve outing, but it usually is damn hard for a journalist to prove definitively that two people have had a sexual affair unless one of them acknowledges it.)
Seller says he has been impressed by my handling of this subject. He says he has a story for me. He says that a House Republican who was a high-profile critic of Clinton during the Monica mess has been engaged in an extramarital affair with a former aide, who also is married. And this GOP legislator was one of the pack who lambasted Clinton not just for his lies but for his lascivious and immoral behavior. If this tip were true, this congressman was a champion hypocrite.
Proof, I said to the caller. How can this be proved? How do you know? Who can confirm this? What sources could I contact? Perhaps the congressman and his gal-pal are only close friends. How can it be ascertained beyond doubt that they crossed the line?
Seller -- who spoke in a formal manner, which prompted me to think he had spent time in the military -- told me he had it on good authority, that the few people around the congressman who knew were skittish about the matter, that the woman involved was not likely to admit the affair if approached, and that he himself was in a delicate position and had to keep his true identity hidden. What was his interest in this? He dislikes hypocrites, he explained. If you dig, he advised, you may find.
His call did spark my curiosity. The lawmaker in question was someone who might be in line for an appointment should Bush win the election. I did some preliminary checking and discovered that he had shown up on Larry Flynt's radar screen, when the pornographer was engaged in a search-and-destroy mission targeting Republican sexual-hypocrites. But it was tough to figure out how to proceed. As I had told the tipster, I was only interested in a story like this if it could be nailed 100-percent.
the following months, Seller mailed me well-organized packages of information -- no return address -- that showed he was hot on the trail of this congressman. He had learned that the man participated in a certain sport and often traveled across the country to engage in a particular type of athletic event. Using the Internet, he unearthed information showing that the alleged mistress had attended the same events and that the two repeatedly were within close physical vicinity of one another. Sure, they could have been fellow hobbyists, but I had to admit this appeared shady.
Several times, Seller told me his target would "crush" him if he found out Seller was talking to me. Still, he persisted, and the correspondence I received contained an increasing amount of detail about the legislator and the possible girlfriend.
At one point, Seller informed me he had consulted "a lawyer with a background in military law" in order to determine if the legislator, a military reserve officer, could be charged with conduct unbecoming an officer. During one of his unannounced calls, Seller said he had spotted a photograph in a newspaper of the legislator with a group of people, and next to the congressman was an unidentified woman whom Seller believed was the mistress. But the paper had cropped half of the woman's face out of the picture.
Weeks after that, Seller rang to say he had located a photo in another paper of the supposed girlfriend. I obtained copies of both photographs, and my assistant and I gazed at them, trying to determine if it was the same woman in each picture. We concluded: maybe, maybe not.
But by now I was persuaded there probably was fire behind the smoke. And, in the aftermath of Bush's selection as president by the Supreme Court, it appeared that this congressman could soon be in the news as a potential appointment. I told Seller that the material he had gathered might be a sufficient foundation for asking the congressman about his relationship with this woman, especially if he did come into line for a senior post in the new administration. Why was this moralistic Clinton-pursuer traveling around the country to athletic events and meeting up with a former aide who now lived outside Washington?
Then I got the kiss-off call from Seller. The mission's been accomplished, he said. The information he had gathered on the congressman had been "put into use." Being somewhat dodgy, he noted that the material had been "presented to the transition team." Seller added, "It is now unlikely that [the congressman] would be given any position, and I suspect he will not be running for reelection to Congress next year." He said he was satisfied with the outcome and indicated this effort to ruin this congressman was a project that had involved several people -- he kept using "we" -- but was careful not to provide any clues as to the identity of his fellow conspirators. Go ahead and chase the story if you like, he added: "But anything further will only be driving more nails into a closed coffin."
Seller also confessed that he had misled me. He did not work in Congress. He would not tell me his real profession. Nor did he accept my lunch invitation. Maybe some day, he said, we can get together and he will explain further -- but that day would be a long time from now. Our relationship was clearly at an end. No bang, just a whimper. Good-bye. Using caller-ID, I retrieved the number of the phone Seller had used for this final communication. But when I later tried the Northern Virginia number, it was connected to a fax machine. A computer search of the number turned up no information.
I felt as if I had been an unknowing part of a larger scheme -- one of several options the schemers had considered. Was this indeed how Washington works sometime? Had a dossier been compiled and passed, and a career destroyed? Had Seller and his crew been motivated only by an aversion to hypocrisy, or had something else been at stake? I paid close attention to the news about Bush appointments and detected no mention of the congressman. And now I am looking forward to seeing whether he will run for reelection.
I suppose I could still work the story and perhaps succeed in embarrassing the guy. After all, he remains a lawmaker. But I have the sense the better story lies in Bruce Seller, whoever he is. I'm guessing that story would be more difficult to uncover than hard evidence of the congressman's liaisons. For the time being, it's material that can be used in the next novel.
January 29, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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