Back in 2000, I interviewed the late Rev. Jerry Falwell on camera in connection with a documentary film of Joe Conason’s and my book, “The Hunting of the President.” It took place at Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Virginia. We were surprised he agreed to speak with us, as an entire chapter of the book dealt with “The Clinton Chronicles,” a bizarre video Falwell promoted on his syndicated TV program, “The Old-Time Gospel Hour.”
A near-delusional concatenation of preposterous falsehoods and conspiracy theories, the video presented the then-President (and his wife) as an embezzler, drug smuggler and serial killer. Supposedly, Bill Clinton routinely had his political rivals murdered, which in a small state like Arkansas, you’d think local reporters might have noticed.
Almost needless to say, the fool thing sold like gangbusters. It was reportedly shown in evangelical churches. As H.L. Mencken used to say, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”
Alas, to many voters, the real world give-and-take of democratic politics isn’t exciting enough. They require End Times melodrama: salvation vs. damnation, good vs. evil. Your candidate’s a savior; his opponent’s satanic.
Anyway, when Falwell brought his road show to Arkansas, the pastor of Little Rock’s largest Baptist church denied him its pulpit. He explained that by promoting a scurrilous video filled with falsehoods about the Clintons and many other Arkansans, the portly televangelist had violated the Ninth Commandment against bearing false witness.
So I asked Falwell, on camera, if the Ninth Commandment was more or less important, theologically speaking, than the Sixth Commandment forbidding adultery. Somewhat to his credit, he acknowledged that they were the same. Falwell added that he’d had no idea how many of the video’s crackpot claims were true, but that the American people deserved to hear them.
At $40 a pop, including $3 for shipping and handling.
And with that, the interview ended. Rev. Falwell suddenly had somewhere else he needed to be.
Ancient history, I know. Pre-Fox News, pre-Breitbart, pre-Internet, even. I mean, VHS videotapes. Who even remembers what those were?
Falwell died in 2007, although his son, Jerry Falwell Jr., recently awarded an honorary doctorate from Liberty University to that exemplary Christian, President Donald J. Trump.
But one thing that hasn’t changed over the ensuing decades is the seeming need of a substantial proportion of the American electorate to believe that Democrats named Clinton are satanic killers.
Hence the reappearance, after all these years, of yet another make-believe murder tale — this one championed by Fox News, Breitbart and online conspiracy sites, with a substantial boost from WikiLeaks and Russian state news media.
Oh, and Newt Gingrich. Because it wouldn’t be a serious hoax without Newt. Also because, believe it or not, defending the honor of wrongly accused Kremlin intelligence agencies appears to be the whole point.
The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel documented Newt’s recent appearance on “Fox and Friends,” where the former speaker breathlessly announced that “it wasn’t the Russians” that leaked thousands of embarrassing Democratic National Committee emails to WikiLeaks.
No, it was supposedly a young DNC staffer named Seth Rich, who was shot to death on a Washington street at 4 a.m. in what D.C. police think was a botched robbery attempt last July.
Russian “fake news” operatives went right to work, charging that “a top American Democratic Party staffer preparing to testify against Hillary Clinton was assassinated this past Sunday during a secret meeting in Washington D.C. he believed he was having with Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents, but who turned out, instead, to be a ‘hit team’ — and who, in turn, were captured yesterday after a running gun battle with U.S. federal police forces just blocks from the White House.”
Got that? A team of professional assassins hired by Hillary Clinton got into a firefight with Federal agents, and were taken down just outside the White House. And you never heard about it. Total media blackout.
Whoever wrote that has seen far too many spy thrillers, where epic car chases and gun battles take place in picturesque parts of major cities all the time. Of course, Jason Bourne rarely sticks around to read the newspapers. But if you’re the kind of person who believes that such things are possible …
Well, you’re either a gullible hayseed who also believes that Hillary Clinton ran a child-molesting ring at a Washington pizza joint while simultaneously conducting a presidential campaign. Or else you’re a Kremlin imagineer whose only knowledge of American life derives from Clint Eastwood movies.
For the record, apart from Seth Rich’s tragic death, there’s zero evidence for a single alleged “fact” supporting this absurd fable. No leaked emails, no pending testimony, no hit team, no nothing. It’s sheer make-believe. The victim’s bereaved parents have repeatedly begged these cruel hoaxers to stop besmirching their son’s memory.
But that’s not how they roll, Fox News apparatchiks.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org