How Big Tobacco Smoked Out the President

Chris Burford cburford at
Thu Dec 17 00:28:58 PST 1998

I have located the investigative article on the class basis of the attacks on Clinton, which has come under discussion again both on LBO Talk and Leninist International lists.

An understanding of the class issues domestically is important in understanding and criticising the latest international developments with the unilateral action of the USA and Britain against Iraq.

Although there are many nuances to this constitutional battle, personal, psychological, social, there is also an economic dimension. It is not credible that such a remarkable battle is without an underlying economic determinant, is not actually a class struggle.

It is not that all the details, the subject of jokes, are mere epiphenomena. They are all part of the concrete whole. (Why *did* Starr have to publish what happened to the cigar?) But the art of marxist analysis lies in the discerning ability to relate the abstract to the concrete, the particular to the general.

This is a clash of wings of capitalism just as much as the 16th century puritans, in opposing the eating of mince pies at Christmas, were actually expressing an underlying class conflict.

I have now found the Observer article of 11th October this year exposing "How Big Tobacco Smoked out the President".

The quote at the top, from Congressman Henry Waxman: 'The tobacco firms' fleet of private jets has become the official airline of the Republican Party.'

Reporter Ed Vulliamy, one of the best investigative reporters of the Guardian/Observer group.

[Possibly some transcription errors. Some paragraph breaks inserted.]

"The Observer this summer unmasked a campaign to unseat the President orchestrated by racists from his home state of Arkansas and right wingers among the Washington elite. These were enemies who have believed Clinton's presidency to be politically illegitimate ever since he was elected in 1992.

Now, new inquiries show that, alongside this political conspiracy, ran the parallel commercial campaign by big tobacco - President Clinton's most determined enemy. And one he dared to challenge.

In the muggy summer of 1994, three men with plenty in common had lunch on Capital Hill, all right-wing Republicans from the tobacco state of North Carolina.

One was Senator Lauch Faircloth, chairman of the Senate committe investigating Clinton's alleged involvement in the Whitewater affair.

[Box: LAUCH FAIRCLOTH Junior Senator for North Carolina, tobacco-chewing hog farmer, switched from Democrats to Republicans in 1991 to win backing from tobacco industry and Helms to win Senate seat. Senior member of Senate committee on Whitewater.]

Another was Judge David Sentinelle of the US District court in Washington, appointed to a secretive new panel assigned to appoint Independent Counsellors, including the one who would investigate the President himself.

[Box: DAVID SENTINELLE Former hardline Republican politician from North Carolina, sponsored by Helms to the bench in Washington. Appointed onto panel assigned to select Independent Counsels. Appointed Kenneth Starr.]

The third was the men to whom both men owed their careers: horseman of the American Right and the tobacco industry, Senator Jesse Helms.

These men, who had been spotted in the Capital subway on their way to dine, were fed up with Robert Fiske, the moderate Republican Special Prosecutor then investigating Whitewater. Fiske was getting nowhere, and the North Carolina team wanted him out.

But these gentlemen had another pressing worry, concerning the cause they shared not only with each other but with the biggest business in their home state: cigarettes.

They and the tobacco barons faced the most sweeping legislation ever aimed at them: a Bill backed by Clinton that would require cigarette manufacturers to pay $516 billion over 25 years towards treating victims of lung cancer.

The Bill proposed raising public funds for a campaign to stop teenagers smoking. It would authorise the Food and Drug Administration to categorise nicotine as an addictive drug.

The threatened legislation dovetailed into a looming civil lawsuit which stood to become the biggest class action in American history when a judge in New Orleans cleared the way for every smoker to sue tobacco companies for addiction to nicotine.

The combination of these menaces was the biggest threat North Carolina's tobacco barons had ever faced. For the tobacco giants, this was a declaration of war that they, and their friends, in politics, were ready to fight to the death.

For the trio meeting for lunch it was a challenge: to try to entwine their defence of tobacco with their desire to neutralise Clinton. Last Thursday's vote to impeach Clinton was the fruit of their rising to meet that challenge.

It was Clinton's second resounding defeat during a presidency marked - until then - by unexpected harmony bedtween the White House and its opponent in Congress.

The first defeat came last June, when the tobacco Bill was torn to shreds. Clinton vowed: 'I want the tobacco lobby and its allies on Capital Hill to know that this battle is far from over.'

The battle had been engaged soon after that secretive lunch between the North Carolinans on Capital Hill in 1994. Within days, Judge Sentelle and his panel had indeed appointed a new 'Independent Counsellor' to replace Fiske.

His name was Kenneth Starr.

Some 400,000 Americans a year die from smoking-related diseases. Despite this, 'tobacco is Washington's most powerful special interest' says Los Angeles Congressman Henry Waxman. 'It gives millions more in campaign contributions than any other industry. Its fleet of private jets has become the official airline of the Republican Party.'

The Republican most visibly active in tobacco's interests is Jesse Helms, who has raised more campaign money from tobacco than any other politician. After Helms, the industry's most faithful servant is his North Carolinian partner and protege, the tobacco-chewing Faircloth, a multi-millionaire hog farmer.

Faircloth had been a democrat but switched sides to the Republicans in 1991. Both the tobacco industry and Helm's political machine contributed heavily to his election campaign in 1992.

The third man at lunch that day was the politicians' old friend Judge Sentelle. Sentelle had been knee-deep in Republican politics as a young attorney - a 'mountain Republican' of the Old South school. He had been chairman of the Republican state convention in 1979, delegate to the party's national convention in 1984 and was sponsored by Helms for a federal judgeship in 1985.

'I would do whatever I could to make sure this young man's principles and courage would be used by this country,' said Helms. Sentelle, for his part, was thrusting on his own behalf, even naming his daughter Reagan after the President, who accordingly put him on the bench.

Sentelle moved, with Helms's sponsorship, to the Washington DC court in 1985. There he was promoted, again sponsored by Helms, to its Appellate Court.

But, during the nomination hearings, Sentelle's nomination was held up by Fiske, then on the American Bar Association's judiciary committee. Fiske accused Sentelle of leaking confidential profiles of opponents of Reagan's judicial candidates.

Sentelle proceeded, however. As an Appeals Court judge, he was a close associate of then Judge Kenneth Starr and quashed the conviction of Oliver North in the Iran-Contra scandal, thereby destroying at a stroke the work of Starr's immediate predecessor, Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh. Helms later, unsuccessfully, proposed Sentelle for the Supreme Court.

But in 1994, Fiske was 'Special Prosecutor', investigating Clinton over the Whitewater affair when Clinton signed a Bill restoring the office of the Independent Counsel - the functionary who may yet bring him down.

Under the provisions of this Bill a three-judge panel was to be created by the Supreme Court and charged to appoint Independent Counsels. It would consist of two retired judges and one from Washington DC.

The latter category provided a choice of 12 judges, some very experienced - but it was Sentelle, only a few years on the DC bench, who caught the Supreme Court's eye. The appointment, however, was so secret that Abner Mitvah, chief judge on the DC circuit, first heard about it through a leak to the press.

The two other judges appointed were retired, but neither kept chambers in Washington. 'Sentelle runs that panel,' says Judge Mitvah.

At the time most people assumed the new panel would simply re-select Fiske - whose staff and investigation were established - and simply change his title. But there were objections, principally from Faircloth of the Whitewater Committee who called Fiske's investigation 'a cover-up'. It was pay-back time.

Faircloth argued for a 'new, truly independent counsel', and his friend Sentelle agreed, seeking 'an apparent as well as actual independence on the part of the counsel'.

They argued that Fiske was tainted by his associations. Fiske had been appointed by Attorney General Janet Reno, said Faircloth, and could not therefore be independent. Moreover, Faircloth added, he had once acted for International Paper, which had sold land to the Whitewater Development Company - at the heart of the the Whitewater affair. Fiske countered - reasonably enough - that International Paper now had a new lawyer.

That lawyer's name was Kenneth Starr.

Helms, Faircloth and Sentelle went for lunch and Starr was duly appointed by Sentelle's panel as new Independent Counsel to investigate Clinton.

Had Starr followed in the footsteps of all his predecessors in the post he now assumed - those appointed to investigate Watergate, Iran-Contra etc - he would have dropped his private clients.

But the most lucrative slice of Starr's annual $1 million worth of private business came from the industry bracing itself for High Noon with Clinton - tobacco. And Starr lost little time combining his briefs and getting to work on its behalf.

Until November 1994, Congressman Henry Waxman was chairman of the Health and Environment Committee. He had come upon some interesting corporate documents.

Circulated within Brown and Williamson, a subsidiary of the giant British American Tobacco Industries plc, they showed how the company had known for 30 years that nicotine was addictive, but had kept the information secret.

The company sued Waxman for repossession of the documents, and hired the man recently appointed 'Independent Counsel'. Starr argued that the leak to Waxman's committee was an abuse of client-attorney privilege.

He was knocked back by a scathing judgment in the Court of Appeal.

On 2 April 1996, Starr - the Independent Counsel - made another, almost unnoticed, court appearance in New Orleans.

He was again representing Brown and Williamson, defending the company against what was potentially the biggest class action in American history, brought by a Mrs Castano, widow of a man who had died of lung cancer.

The company was appealing against the verdict of Judge Okla Jones that Castano's claim, 'including fraud, negligence and punitive damage' could be tried as a class action.

The declared aim of Starr's brief was to oppose a class certification that sought to open the way for compensation to every smoker and ex-smoker - a trial plan that would 'hopelessly bog down' the courts into 'millions of trials', said Starr.

But careful re-reading of the court papers reveals that Starr was up to something else at the same time. He was also fighting the tobacco barons' front line in the smoking war - arguing that nicotine is not addictive.

Castano's lawyer, Elizabeth Cabraser, insisted that the industry knew nicotine was addictive, that the companies had tampered with the drug to make it so, lied to the public and that the case was therefore 'a fraud claim'.

It was a case that was to have huge ramifications. Picked up by five US states, the actions ended in a historic out-of-court settlement between American society and the tobacco industry this summer that will cost the industry billions.

But while Starr had lost the case on behalf of the tobacco industry, he wasn't finished with the President who had come out against the cigarette manufacturers.

On 16 January this year, Starr needed to extend the parameters of his Whitewater probe to cover the emergent Monica Lewinsky scandal. After four years and 440 million, Whitewater had come up with nothing with which to target Clinton.

Starr had found Lewinsky. His only task now was to get the secretive three-judge panel to allow him to expand his investigation in her direction. The application, to Judge David Sentelle, was a formality.


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