DeLay’s Hillary Smear

The Hammer revives an urban myth.

Tom DeLay

In his new memoir, No Retreat, No Surrender, former House majority leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, writes of former President Bill Clinton, “I openly admit that I just don’t like the man, and my disgust is both personal and political.” How much does DeLay hate Clinton? Enough to recite as fact a story about the Clinton White House that’s acquired wide currency within the military but has been shown again and again to be false. As DeLay tells it, the story is a smear against Bill Clinton, but as the Hammer no doubt knows, it is really a smear against Hillary Clinton, who is running for president.

I am not talking about the story of how the youthful Bill Clinton went back on his word to enter the Reserve Officer Training Corps upon completing his Rhodes scholarship. That story is well-known, and it’s true. In unloading on Clinton, DeLay steers clear of the ROTC saga, perhaps because it might raise the question of why DeLay, in reciting his own life story, never explains how he avoided the Vietnam draft when he graduated from the University of Houston in 1970. The only time I’m aware of that DeLay has ever answered this question publicly was at the 1988 Republican convention, amid the ruckus surrounding the vice-presidential selection of Dan Quayle, who’d sat out the war in the National Guard. According to a contemporary account in the Houston Press, an alternative newspaper, DeLay voiced the highly original complaint  that he’d been a victim of reverse discrimination. So many African-American kids joined up that there was no room for patriotic white kids! In fact, DeLay was kept out by a numbers game of a very different sort: He drew a high draft-lottery number (312 in a year when the highest number called was 195) and, though already a Goldwater Republican, apparently saw no reason to enlist.

But I digress. Here is DeLay’s accusation, on Pages 108 and 109:

What sent me over the top about Clinton is that his brand of liberalism had an almost anti-American feel to it. Because it received scant treatment in the press many Americans don’t know that when the Clintons first moved into the White House, they seriously considered banning all military uniforms from White House grounds. From the generals briefing the president to the Marines guarding the front door, no one would have been allowed to wear a military uniform. Fortunately, someone talked the Clintons out of this treachery, but take a moment to think about what even considering such a thing says about them. This was the president of the United States and his wife saying that something about military uniforms offended them. Apparently the noble symbols of martial honor and sacrifice so disturbed their unpatriotic, liberal sensibilities that they wanted to forbid them in the home of the nation’s commander in chief. We should have kicked them out of office right then and there!

The only part of the preceding passage that’s true is that the purported consideration of a ban on military uniforms received “scant treatment in the press.” It received scant treatment because no such ban was ever considered. The few news accounts to mention this rumor did so only to point out that it was entirely false. As best I can determine, the rumor was first knocked down by Kenneth Walsh, Bruce Auster, and Tim Zimmerman in U.S. News & World Report, March 7, 1993:

Poisoned rumors. At the Pentagon, the stories about White House insensitivity are numerous, and, some Clinton defenders say, approach paranoia. Perhaps the most virulent is the story that Chelsea Clinton refused to enter a government car destined to drive her to school because she didn’t want to ride with a uniformed officer. Knowledgeable sources say Chelsea has always ridden with Secret Service agents and the occasion has never arisen where a military escort was asked to fill in for her regular agents. Among other poisonous rumors is the tale that the Clintonites are preparing to order military personnel to wear civilian clothes, not their uniforms, whenever they enter the White House. Another rumor is that Clinton advisers have forbidden the military aide who carries “the football”—a suitcase containing nuclear launch codes—to dress in uniform. The White House denies both allegations.

The following month, the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman tracked down these same rumors and once again reported that they were not true.

Still, the rumors have persisted, and increasingly they’ve identified the culprit as then-First Lady Hillary Clinton. In 2005, Newsweek reported, “There are still soldiers who swear by the myth that she banned uniforms at the White House.” That same year, the myth turned up in Edward Klein’s Hillary-bashing book, The Truth About Hillary. In Klein’s biography, the story was attributed to Air Force Lt. Col. Robert “Buzz” Patterson, who had served as the president’s Air Force aide, and had related the story in 2003 * in a Clinton-bashing book of his own, titled Dereliction of Duty. The trouble with Klein’s (and Patterson’s) version is that it has Hillary proposing the ban in 1996—three years after U.S. News and the Post had knocked down the exact same rumor. Patterson worked in the White House only from 1996 to 1998, so it isn’t possible that he merely got his dates confused. To believe Klein and Patterson, then, we must believe that Hillary consciously made happen something that, three years earlier, had been identified by at least two prominent news sources as something that hadn’t happened but, if it had, would have been a political disaster. That just isn’t possible.

Does DeLay believe the rumor? I have my doubts. Will he retract it? Don’t hold your breath.

[Update, March 27: Buzz Patterson has replied to this column in the Fray here, here, here, and here. He states that: 1.) I got the publication date of his book wrong (thanks, it’s now corrected); 2.) “I stand by the assertions contained in my book 100%. I was there, you weren’t.”; 3.) He is currently the chief operating officer for the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a right-wing agitprop mill in Los Angeles (my description, not Patterson’s, but not all that different from the Center’s self-description in its year-end report; it  calls itself  “a battle-tank, not just a think-tank,” and boasts that it has, among other things, persuaded DeLay, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity to make frequent use of the terms “fifth column” and “hate-America left”); and 4.) The column you have on your screen is “rife with lies.” On this last point, Patterson elaborates:

It happened in the spring of 1996. I was the Air Force Aide to the President so I had firsthand knowledge of the First Lady’s edict. Others who served in the White House Military Unit at the time can corroborate. In the grand scheme of things, it was a drop in the bucket in the Clinton’s overall disdain for the military. In and of itself, I wasn’t too alarmed. I was, by the way, at the time a registered Democrat. I rectified that upon my retirement from the USAF in 2001.

I’ve e-mailed Patterson, asking him to clarify from whom he acquired “firsthand knowledge of the First Lady’s edict,” and to put me in touch with the others who “can corroborate.” I’ve also solicited his thoughts about the U.S. News and Washington Post storiesdescribing and knocking down his story three years before he says it unfolded. When and if he replies, I’ll write a followup column.]

Correction, March 27, 2007: An earlier version of this column misstated the publication year of Dereliction of Duty as 2006. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)