The highbrow elements of the right-wing media complex like to tell a self-flattering story in which the modern American right is controlled by sophisticates such as themselves. The Republican Party’s extremists, in this version of reality, are mere rabble who provide the movement with manpower and votes but have little influence over the course of political events.
The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board offered up such a tale in its Saturday piece eulogizing former independent counsel Kenneth Starr. The board complained that “Starr’s critics” ignore his role in “putting to rest the conspiracy theories on the right about Vincent Foster,” a senior aide in President Bill Clinton’s White House who took his own life in 1993. “The Qanons of the era argued that the Clintons probably had something nefarious to do with it,” the board wrote. “Starr helped debunk that theory with an investigation concluding that Foster had killed himself.”
By tying together the Foster conspiracy theorists of the past with the QAnon fanatics of the present, the editorial board seeks to minimize the influence of both within the right. But in both cases, the conspiracy theory infested every element of the movement over which the Journal pretends to play a leading role.
Foster was the Seth Rich of the Clinton administration, someone whose tragic death was opportunistically seized by right-wing conspiracy theorists seeking partisan gain. And as with Rich, those conspiracy theories bubbled up to the heights of the right-wing press.
Indeed, the Journal editorial board itself stoked the Foster conspiracy theories at the time. After Foster took his own life in Virginia’s Fort Marcy Park – leaving behind a note stating that “the WSJ editors lie without consequence,” a reference to several Journal editorials attacking him – the board called for an independent counsel to investigate Foster’s death. “If he was driven to take his life by purely personal despair, a serious investigation should share this conclusion so that he can be appropriately mourned,” the board concluded in its July 22, 1993, piece.
That sort of winking paranoia was par for the course for the Journal during the Clinton administration, as the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald noted in a 2007 Salon.com review of the editorial board’s “profound hate-mongering and truly deranged accusations.”
“This is the Editorial Page that, throughout the 1990s, did more to infect and degrade our public discourse than anyone this side of Rush Limbaugh and Matt Drudge,” Greenwald, now a regular guest on Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s show, wrote. “But the WSJ Editors were actually far worse than Limbaugh and Drudge, because they put a stamp of establishment journalistic credibility on those rancid dirt-mongers, elevating them to the realm of the credible and influential.”
Several investigations, undertaken as Foster conspiracy theories metasticized through the right, ultimately concluded the White House aide had died by suicide. After special prosecutor Robert B. Fiske Jr. released his findings in 1994, the Journal editorial board stated: “Barring some unimaginable new disclosure, we find no reason to doubt that the former White House counsel committed suicide in Fort Marcy Park.”
But Fiske’s report did not silence the right’s conspiracy theorists. Nor did the conclusions of the Department of Justice, FBI, and Park Police in 1993; the top Republican on the House’s government oversight committee in 1994; a Senate committee in 1995; or the results of Starr’s investigation in 1997. The Journal did little to establish guardrails against the insanity; responding to Starr’s report, editorial writer Micah Morrison tellingly refused to condemn Christopher Ruddy, the primary champion of the conspiracy theory, writing instead that Ruddy had simply been asking the “obvious questions” that the “mainstream press” refused to ask.
And so Starr did not ultimately “put to rest the conspiracy theories on the right,” as the Journal claimed this weekend. Instead, the most powerful forces on the American right continued to stoke the same lies about Foster’s suicide as they sought to damage Hillary Clinton’s political standing.
Limbaugh regularly insinuated during the 2008 presidential primary that the Clintons may have murdered Foster and that their political opponents might end up in “Fort Marcy Park” or taking “Fort Marcy Airlines.” He received the Medal of Freedom from then-President Donald Trump and was celebrated upon his passing by the Journal editorial board as someone who “represented traditional American values that the dominant culture too often demeans.”
Sean Hannity, the longtime Fox host described as a shadow chief of staff in the Trump White House, was still talking about “the strange death of Vince Foster” among the “chapters remaining open” for Hillary Clinton long after Starr’s report. “Did a close friend of Hillary Clinton commit suicide, or was it a massive cover-up?” he asked during one 2007 Fox segment. He told his audience of Foster, “depending on which version of the story you believe, he took his own life,” and also claimed that “in the minds of some,” questions regarding the contents of Foster’s files following his suicide “may have provided a motive for foul play.” Hannity later became the most prominent purveyor of Seth Rich conspiracy theories.
Trump, who rode a reputation as the nation’s most prominent birther to the Republican presidential nomination, himself pushed Foster conspiracy theories in the leadup to the 2016 general election. “I don’t bring [Foster’s death] up because I don’t know enough to really discuss it,” he told The Washington Post in a May 2016 interview. “I will say there are people who continue to bring it up because they think it was absolutely a murder. I don’t do that because I don’t think it’s fair.”
Trump loves conspiracy theories, and in recent days, he has started to lean hard into the QAnon movement.
He is far from alone. That lunatic movement, once consigned to the fringes of the right, has become increasingly prominent. Its adherents and fellow travelers include members of Congress and Republican nominees for posts to oversee state elections. Major right-wing outlets such as Fox either cozy up to its extremism or pretend it doesn’t exist. They are all following the dictates of the right-wing base, which wants illiberalism and antidemocracy.
The Journal editorial board pretends otherwise, but the movement it supports is riddled with conspiracy theorists and extremists from top to bottom. And the inability or unwillingness of elite Republican organs like itself to hold the line against those elements is part of the reason why.