Inside the vast
right-wing conspiracy

Sam Smith
1998

I figured that if I was going to be part of the vast right wing conspiracy, I better find out something about it. So in the best fashion of post-modern journalism, I decided to take a poll. I didn't really know how to take a poll but I estimated that if interviewing 450 people across the nation could tell one how popular the president is, then interviewing six people would take care of a conspiracy of up to 3,333,333 people. That seemed pretty vast to me.

The sample of Clinton tormentors I came up with consisted of Roger Morris (author of Partners in Power), Sally Denton [then wife of Morris], journalist Christopher Ruddy, independent investigator Hugh Sprunt, columnist Phillip Weiss, and, just to keep costs down, myself. Whitewater journalist Ambrose Evans-Pritchard was supposed to be in the sample but he is such a sly conspirator I couldn't even find him.

The first thing I discovered about these folks was that their conspiracy might be more of the vast offspring, rather than vast right-wing, variety. In fact, with the exception of Morris, all came from families ranging from four (Sprunt and Denton) to six (Weiss and Smith) to fourteen (Ruddy). And while the Clintons are each oldest children of small families, only Morris and Sprunt lead their sibling pack.

Is there an inner meaning to this? Maybe. When Weiss asked if I was bothered being mixed up with right-wingers, I told him have always lived around people who didn't agree with me. And to put the matter of birth order as scientifically and objectively as possible, if you are a later born in a large family you learn early not to take any shit from those who got there first. One can imagine the vital skills the 12th born little Ruddy gained in endless battles for the window seat.

I next looked for ideological traces only to be terribly disappointed. For example, at almost the same time Sprunt was absorbing Ayn Rand, I was being influenced by the writings of Martin Luther King Jr. Alleged rightwing journalist Ruddy went to the London School of Economics and taught American history to Bronx students from the Caribbean and later to largely black classes at Adlai Stevenson High School. At 26 he won an landslide election to become chair of the teacher's union local, from which post he led a successful battle to get rid of an incompetent principal.

Sally Denton's father ran for Congress twice as a "very progressive, liberal Democrat" favoring civil rights, welfare, Medicare, and gun control. One of her grandmothers was an early 20th century feminist. Weiss's parents were anti-Vietnam War. Mine were rabid New Dealers who started an organic beef farm even before Silent Spring. While it is true that Morris once worked for the Nixon White House, he resigned over the invasion of Cambodia in May 1970. Besides, he also worked for Dean Acheson, Lyndon Johnson and Walter Mondale which, in liberal circles, is pretty close to a hat trick.

More important, though, may be the fact that among the journalists in my sample, none has worked for what might be called the prissy press -- you know: the people who look and talk like morticians and are always prattling about excellence and editorial filtering and that sort of thing. Two (Ruddy and Weiss) have worked for lusty tabloids, Denton worked for Jack Anderson, in television, and for western papers. And I started out in radio and have been an alternative journalist most of my life.

But the most significant thing I found out about my sample was how many of us grew up in environments that encouraged both independent thinking and moral concern. Chris Ruddy's father, for example, was an police lieutenant who he describes as "a great believer in people -- a humanitarian -- which is not typical for the cynicism one finds among cops."

"My parents were patriotic. They believed in the country, in values. Of course we [didn't] have much money and it was sort of stressed that money was not as important as doing the right thing. " His father was pro-union and not reactionary at all.

Sally Denton's list of familial free-thinkers starts with an ancestor who fled Utah in the 1850s after being "fleeced by the church" and the men who ran it. Appalled by polygamy she left the state with a Mormon assassination squad hot on her trail.

Growing up in Las Vegas, Denton was an early rebel influenced by watching her father being defeated by corruption time and again "and the routine and systematic silencing of women." She found her outlet in journalism, producing among other things, The Blue Grass Conspiracy, a riveting account of how drugs took over Kentucky.

Roger Morris was strongly influenced by his grandmother in the Kansas City of the Pendergast machine: "Her view of the inner darkness of real American politics left me an indelible sense of the shallowness and disgrace of most or our public discourse, the fundamental immorality of both old parties, and an abiding sense of reformist outrage."

Hugh Sprunt describes himself as "not a complete Randite . . .and I gather from official sources that is the only kind you can be." He went to church regularly through high school. It counted as a class. All through high school, I went to Quaker meeting each week and it, too, counted as a class.

Sprunt ended up a "respectable" tax CPA and attorney with a JD and MBA from Stanford, but along the way he drove a combine, worked as an illegal alien outside the US, taught diving, cooked 1200 meals at week at MIT while a student there, and -- trained by crop dusters -- got his pilot's license at 16.

Philip Weiss came to the Whitewater story as an articulate agnostic and has continued his search as an honest pilgrim, which is to say that as a confederate of any sort he is not to be trusted. For my part, one grandfather wouldn't have Sunday papers delivered to his house, the other wrote letters to his son using "thee" and "thou." My mother, upon hearing me mildly slight Eleanor Roosevelt, demanded in pique, "Don't you hold anything sacred?"

At the same time, our house always seemed filled with people doing something different or for the first time such a cousin testing his weird invention, an FM car radio, or my father filing a public interest law suit before there were such things or asking dowser Henry Gross to find him some water. In my own case, loyal readers have more than enough evidence of terminal indifference towards the conventional.

In short, it all adds up to a pretty lousy conspiracy. It seems more like an oxymoronic confederacy of the hopelessly independent. Just some people who somehow learned to respect certain values and certain things, one of which is that it is still possible to think for yourself. Whatever it is, it's nice to be around.

Copyright 1998 The Progressive Review

THE PROGRESSIVE REVIEW