Clinton's not-so-radical past
By Robert Farley
Published on Friday, February 15th, 2008 at 6:04 p.m.
The latest anti-Hillary Clinton chain e-mail making the rounds comes not from an anonymous voice in the blogosphere but from a former political consultant who once helped guide the Clintons' political life in Arkansas and the White House.
Although it's not clear who created the e-mail, the allegations it carries are based on an article by famed strategist Dick Morris. The onetime Clinton ally paints an embellished picture of Hillary Rodham as a student radical who interned for a law firm headed by a Communist and worked tirelessly to help Black Panthers on trial for murder.
Anonymous e-mail attacks have been popular in this year's presidential campaign, particularly in the Democratic contest where both leading candidates have been subjected to viral assaults. But this one is unique because it cites a well-known source: Morris.
You may remember him as the campaign manager for Bill Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign, the one who stepped down in disgrace when it was revealed that he allowed a prostitute to listen in on conversations with the president. She said Morris had a thing for toe sucking.
Morris' relationship with the Clintons quickly soured. Now, he's a political commentator for Fox News and a nationally syndicated columnist with a Web site, DickMorris.com. Clinton-bashing is his passion.
On Aug. 9, 2007, Morris wrote an article for FrontPageMag.com, a conservative Internet journal, where he restates two points he made about Hillary Clinton in a book he wrote years before. The first was about her alleged sympathy for the Black Panthers and the other referenced her internship with a law firm run by a Communist.
We'll start with the Black Panthers. Here's what the e-mail, taken directly from Morris' article, says: "Hillary's main extracurricular activity in law school was helping the Black Panthers, on trial in Connecticut for torturing and killing a federal agent. She went to court every day as part of a law student monitoring committee trying to spot civil rights violations and develop grounds for appeal."
Here's the history.
In 1970, eight Black Panthers, including its national chairman Bobby Seale, were brought to trial in New Haven, Conn., on charges of murdering a fellow member, Alex Rackley, who was suspected of being a police informant. He was not a federal agent.
The trial consumed the Yale campus, and many Yale students rallied in support of the black defendants, or at least for their right to a fair trial. Consider this statement from Yale president Kingman Brewster: "I personally want to say that I am appalled that things have come to such a pass that I am skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the U.S."
Clinton, a Yale Law School student a the time, played a "minor" role in the doings that year, said Paul Bass, a journalist who spent years researching the Black Panther case for a book he co-authored called Murder in the Model City. She co-chaired a committee whose main role was to prevent violence at a May Day demonstration, he said.
Clinton's committee also offered legal advice to demonstrators who got arrested and to monitor the trial for civil rights abuses, Bass said.
But if that civil-rights monitoring ever happened, said two sources interviewed by the St. Petersburg Times, one thing is certain: Clinton was not an every-day trial watcher, as Morris claims. Nor did she "help" the defense.
"I can't say she was never in court," said David Rosen, a junior member of the defense team for Seale. "But she was not there every day. In fact, I don't even remember seeing her there at all. I know she didn't do any work for the defense team."
According to Carl Bernstein's biography A Woman in Charge, Clinton was among the student-observers from a civil liberties class who attended the trial daily "to report possible abuses by the government, discuss them in class, write papers about them and prepare summaries for the American Civil Liberties Union."
That last part is news to Mike Avery, who was hired by the ACLU as a staff lawyer to keep tabs on the Black Panther case.
"I didn't see Hillary Rodham anywhere around the place, and I would have known," said Avery, now a law professor at Suffolk Law School in Boston.
People involved in the case all knew each other and socialized, he said. "She was not in that crowd," he said, "by no stretch of the imagination."
Clinton's campaign did not respond Times inquiries.
Another Morris charge sent by chain e-mail said: "Hillary interned with Bob Treuhaft, the head of the California Communist Party. She met Bob when he represented the Panthers and traveled all the way to San Francisco to take an internship with him."
In 1971, Clinton did spend a summer interning as a law clerk for Treuhaft, Walker and Burnstein.
And senior partner Treuhaft had once been active in the American Communist Party, though he was not "head of the California Communist Party" as Morris claimed in his article. Investigated and harassed by McCarthyites in 1950s, Treuhaft was listed by the House Un-American Activities Committee as one of the most dangerously subversive lawyers in the country, according to his 2001 obituary in the Times of London. But he became disillusioned with the party and left it in 1958, before Clinton started her internship with the firm.
In her autobiography, Clinton makes only passing reference to her responsibilities at the firm, which she called "a small law firm in Oakland, California." She wrote, "I spent most of my time working for Mal Burnstein researching, writing legal motions and briefs for a child custody case."
Burnstein, who was never a Communist, is retired now. Reached at his home in California, Burnstein recalled that Clinton was one of the firm's better summer interns: smart and a hard worker.
"She wasn't political at all, that I remember," Burnstein said. "The only politics that were discernible were probably liberal politics ... She came to us because of the civil rights cases we did, the things we did with racial equity and other civil rights things. That was her interest."
In addition to Treuhaft's former association with the Communist Party, another partner in the firm, Doris Walker, was, and still is, an active member.
Clinton must have known about those associations, Burnstein said. "It's not like it was a secret."
Walker, now retired, said she figured someone would try to make political hay out of it eventually. Reached at home in California this week, she said she "must be the only living Communist Party member of my generation."
"It was sort of a left-wing firm," Walker said, but most of the lawyers were not Communists. To dredge it up now, she said, amounts to little more than red-baiting.
Although Morris did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment, in his 2004 book, Rewriting History, an acerbic rebuttal to Hillary Clinton's autobiography, Living History, he takes a more measured stance.
"Hillary was no Communist, nor should her work at the Treuhaft firm imply that she was," Morris wrote. "But the fact that she chose this job out of all the summer jobs that might have been available, traveling three thousand miles for it, tells something about her orientation at the time. Just as the fact that she does not describe the firm's work or reputation says something about her today."
That part's not in the e-mail, which ends with Morris' assessment of Clinton: "She is a disaster for all Americans."
Sources:FrontPageMag.com, "Bill Crafts Hillary's Bio," by Dick Morris, Aug. 9, 2007
Snopes.com, Black Panthers, last updated Jan. 24, 2008
Times of London, Robert E. Treuhaft, obituary, Nov. 16, 2001
New York Times, "Robert Treuhaft, 89, Lawyer Who Inspired Funeral Expos," by Paul Lewis, Dec. 2, 2001
Consumers Cooperative of Berkeley Oral History Collection, "Left-Wing Political Activist and Progressive Leader in the Berkeley Co-op," interviews of Treuhaft conducted by Robert G. Larsen, 1988-1989
Living History, by Hillary Rodham Clinton, 2003
A Woman in Charge, by Carl Bernstein, 2007
Rewriting History, by Dick Morris and Eileen McGann, 2004
Interview with Paul Bass, a journalist and co-author of Murder in the Model City, Feb. 8, 2008
Interview with attorney David Rosen, a junior member of the defense team for Bobby Seale, Feb. 7, 2008
Interview with Mike Avery a former staff lawyer for the ACLU who worked on the Black Panther case, Feb. 7, 2008
Interview with Malcolm Burnstein, former partner with the law firm Treuhaft, Walker and Burnstein, Feb. 7, 2008
Interview with Doris Walker, former partner with the law firm Treuhaft, Walker and Burnstein, Feb. 7, 2008
Researchers: Caryn Baird
Names in this article: Hillary Clinton
We want to hear your suggestions and comments.
For tips or comments on our Obameter and our GOP-Pledge-O-Meter promise databases, please e-mail the Obameter. If you are commenting on a specific promise, please include the wording of the promise.For comments about our Truth-O-Meter or Flip-O-Meter items, please e-mail the Truth-O-Meter. We’re especially interested in seeing any chain e-mails you receive that you would like us to check out. If you send us a comment, we'll assume you don't mind us publishing it unless you tell us otherwise.
Keep up to date with Politifact :
- Sign up for our e-mail (about once a week)
- Put a free PolitiFact widget on your blog or Web page
- Subscribe to our RSS feeds on Truth-O-Meter items
- Subscribe to our RSS feeds on GOP Pledge-O-Meter items
- Subscribe to our RSS feeds on Obameter items
- Advertise on PolitiFact
- Shop the PolitiFact store for T-shirts, hats and other PolitiFact swag