As is well enough known, the legendary Masters Golf Tournament kicks off today in Augusta, Georgia. What is less well known, much less, is that a stunning reversal on the final day of the tournament 20 years ago helped preserve the Clinton presidency and Hillary’s future.
On April 14, 1996 – four days after the funeral of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown – Bill Clinton watched in shock as Australian Greg Norman, his one buddy in the Republican-friendly world of professional golf, blew a six-stroke lead in the final round of the Masters, the greatest choke in the tournament’s history.
“Yes,” Clinton would tell press aide, Mike McCurry, “that’s going to be the new theme for the campaign, that we’re not going to allow ourselves to be Greg Normanized.”
Bill Clinton was horrified in a way few around him could understand. “We could have a major crisis go bad on us,” he fretted constantly.
Clinton knew something his staff did not: The “inexplicable” plane crash that killed Brown and 34 others had spared him just such a crisis. “Greg Norman,” he would repeat to his staff. “Greg Norman.”
Adviser Dick Morris reinforced Clinton’s anxiety. He did not shy from telling the president that despite his hefty lead in the polls over Bob Dole, Clinton had “a soft underbelly,” namely that the majority of the voters did not particularly trust or respect him as commander in chief.
Morris worried that a terrorist act could expose that underbelly in the months leading up to the November election. In what Morris has referred to as “the terror summer of 1996,” he identified “three attacks” in a six week stretch had put the whole White House on edge.
Jack Cashill’s latest book illustrates how the neo-Puritan progressive movement came to mimic a religion in its structure but not at all in its spirit — order “Scarlet Letters: The Ever-Increasing Intolerance of the Cult of Liberalism”
The first was the June truck bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudia Arabia that left 19 American servicemen dead. The second was the destruction of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of Long Island on July 17. The third was the Centennial Park bombing at the Atlanta Olympics on July 28 that killed two and injured more than 100.
As former Labor Secretary Robert Reich bitterly observed, Morris’ mantra in the run-up to the 1996 election was, “Things are wonderful.” To preserve the illusion, Clinton would “utter no word that challenges America.”
As Morris well knew, however, a terrorist act against America could have dispelled the illusion of “wonderful” in a literal flash. It had “Greg Norman” written all over it.
Much better to stall for time. For Khobar and TWA 800, overly deliberate investigations would put off any real response for years.
For Centennial Park, there was always Richard Jewell, the hapless security guard who had found the bomb in the first place. The Clinton administration would serve up the transparently innocent Jewell as fodder to the media all the way through October.
Domestic terror was another issue altogether. Clinton had revived his presidency at Oklahoma City by exploiting the bombing of the Murrah building.
He and his supporters had ruthlessly linked Timothy McVeigh to Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh and other “purveyors of hate and division” on the right.
The nicely timed church burnings of 1996 presented an opportunity to repeat the coup. Responding to the presumed “epidemic,” Clinton told a national radio audience that “racial hostility is the driving force” behind the church burnings. “I want to ask every citizen in America to say,” continued the president, “we are not slipping back to those dark days.”
If the president were discreet about who was responsible for the presumed arsons, his allies on the left were not. Jesse Jackson, for one, blamed the burnings on a “‘cultural conspiracy’ – a seeming intolerance fed by white politicians’ attacks on affirmative action and immigration.”
As would soon enough become clear, the only surge in church burning came after the media hype as a result of copycat crimes, targeted at no particular race, and perpetrated not by Christian right-wingers but by self-described “satanists” more than any other identifiable group.
Sheepishly, in time, the major media would come to accept the verdict, but the damage had been done. Black Americans had understandably grown more alienated and more fearful. Who better to protect them in an election year than that great friend and patron of Ron Brown, Bill Clinton, the first black president?
And who better to protect them this election year than that great friend of minorities and the marginalized everywhere, Hillary Clinton. Forgetting the past, the media work under the presumption that the only “Greg Norman” that can deny her the White House is an indictment in the email scandal.
What they do not know is that another Greg Norman lies hidden in the rough. It goes by the name “TWA Flight 800,” and it will be rediscovered before the summer is through.
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