March 17, 1998


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George Orwell’s brilliant book “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was published in 1949. In Orwell’s nightmarish vision of the totalitarian future, political leaders literally rewrite history. If a fact was inconvenient, or proved that the leaders had been wrong, books and newspapers were revised to show the “new” truth.

Orwell was prescient, but he didn’t realize that the peak of revisionism would not be reached until 1998. The current
presidential sex scandal is giving both Democrats and Republicans a chance to say what really happened, even if the new “truth”
happens to directly contradict previous statements.

On March 15 President Bill Clinton said he had a “very clear memory” of his meeting with Kathleen Willey, during which she
alleges that the president sexually molested her. Earlier the president had said that he had “no specific recollection” of the
meeting. We guess some people’s memory improves with age.

Meanwhile, White House Communications Director Ann Lewis spoke on two network news shows in an attempt to discredit the president’s most recent accuser. In 1991 Lewis was one of those who accused Republicans of “attacking the victim” when they noted that Anita Hill continued to stay in touch with Clarence Thomas after she had allegedly been harassed by Thomas. Lewis is now trying to discredit Willey on the basis that Willey continued to stay in touch with Bill Clinton after allegedly being harassed by Clinton. Hmmm…

Republicans also have their share of revisionists. Senate Republican leader Trent Lott told CNN that presidential
investigator Kenneth Starr should “show his cards” or “close it (the investigation) out.” After a barrage of criticism by other
Republicans, Lott later said that the media “distorted” his comments and that Starr was “doing a great job.”

Monica Lewinsky is one of the best at the revisionist game. She gave a sworn deposition that she did not have a sexual
relationship with President Clinton. After the deposition tapes were released in which she is heard telling her friend that, in fact, she had an extended sexual relationship with the president.

What people have said and done is so flexible that Lewinsky’s attorney, William Ginsburg, said at one point that his client was standing by her affidavit “at this time.” Of course she reserves the right to change her version of past events next week.

Conservative author David Brock has also had a change of heart. He helped start the whole scandal more than four years ago with an article in “American Spectator” in which he wrote about the ways in which Arkansas state troopers helped then-governor Clinton procure women. At the time, Brock said “the public’s right to know outweighs a public figure’s claim to privacy or
journalistic discretion.” But now we’re in 1998, and Brock has changed his tune. Different year, different magazine, different
opinion: Brock, writing in “Esquire”, recently said the private lives of public figures should be off-limits.

Lawyers are pros at the revisionist game. This is what Robert Bennett, Clinton’s lawyer, has to say about Willey’s accusations: “What you’ve got to do is wait for all the facts.” Even, perhaps, if they don’t actually exist. “All the facts” is supposedly a reference to various as-yet-unrevealed documents which will undercut Willey’s story. But, in fact, there is no evidence that such documents really exist.

Of course, in 1998 not just politicians and lawyers revise the past. Anyone can play the revisionist game. Regret some aspect of your past? No problem – just make up a new version.

Our very favorite revisionist is former football and broadcasting star O.J. Simpson. After insisting, at least 10,000 times, that
he was not the murderer of his ex-wife, Simpson may have a different version of the past now. Perhaps he really did pump a knife in and out of her body, but it was only to show how much he cared. Here is what Simpson said recently: “Even if I did do this (murder his ex-wife), it would have to have been because I loved her very much, right?”


Read more about truth as a moving target at the Washington Post’s Clinton Accused section.

Read more about revisionism in the Howard Kurtz essay.


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