Hillary and Bill Clinton in 1994 Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite

Sorting through some old papers of mine, I came across a column I’d written for the Reader in March of 1994—close to a quarter century ago. I like to revisit old columns; they remind me of matters that seemed important at the time though I’ve long since forgotten them. And they send a poignant message to the present. The message is, You’re no big deal. We thought we were special too.

But this column had more to say than that.

Bill and Hillary Clinton had been in the White House about 14 months at the time, and they were catching it from the Tribune. Two of the paper’s op-ed columnists vented their displeasure.

Stephen Chapman explained the Clintons’ strategy for getting Americans to accept health care reforms they didn’t want to pay for. “Promise the voters everything, and count on being back in Little Rock before they find out you lied,” he wrote. Chapman was cynical, but Joan Beck was frightened. “It’s the Clintons who are determined to expand the role of government in our lives by their plans for massive changes in health care,” she wrote.

Beck’s mention of health care was made in passing. What truly said big government to her was income taxes. The Clinton administration had just raised taxes, the tax code was out of control, and to give you an idea of how unfathomable tax forms were, the Clintons themselves—both lawyers—apparently owed several thousand dollars in back taxes. Beck indulged herself with schadenfreude.

“Maybe the moral is that they deserve some IRS flak to remind them how much the government now intrudes on the lives of people who are supposed to be free,” she wrote. “What happened to innocent until proven guilty, when the IRS can treat us as guilty unless we can prove otherwise?” 

She went on, “Where is the right of privacy when the IRS demands to know how much used clothing we give to a church rummage sale and how big our mortgage payments are and how much our safety deposit box costs?”

What I wrote then I’d write now. “This is an old lament,” I retorted. “It arises from the totalitarian situation in which we all get to tell the IRS each year what we owe and once in a while the IRS makes us prove it.”
When we look back, it’s clearer now than it might have been then that the Clintons couldn’t have hightailed it back to Little Rock until Bill Clinton finished his second term. And when that happened, they preferred New York City. So the nation had all the time in the world to catch on to the Clintons’ “schemes.” And I suppose the nation did: Hillary’s health care bill didn’t make it out of Congress. On the other hand, the Clinton tax increase triggered one of the most sustained eras of prosperity in American history. 

When I unearthed it, my old column told me that Hillary Clinton has been an actor on the national stage roughly forever, and virtually from the day she got there she’s been construed as a kind of bogey-person, a schemer bent on wrapping free Americans in chains while making herself rich in kinky deals. People chant “Lock her up” who couldn’t tell you why they’re so sure she’s a lying crook, except that everybody has always known it. This loathing is amplified by today’s crop of right-wing dingbats; but it dates to a time when solemn conservative voices such as the Tribune’s called her a threat to liberty.

But the point of my 1994 column wasn’t to defend Hillary Clinton. It was to suggest the Tribune was being obtuse.

The Metro Chicago Information Center, in collaboration with the Chicago Department of Health, had just completed a study of health care in the Chicago region. But did anyone care? The previous September MCIC had offered the media preliminary figures, but the Tribune and Sun-Times both ignored them. On March 17 the Community Media Workshop (now Public Narrative) had scheduled a brown-bag luncheon that would introduce local leaders in the realm of health care policy to Chicago journalists who wanted to tell their stories. The problem was, CMW couldn’t find any. We cover health care out of Washington, the dailies replied.

Eventually CMM located a Tribune business writer, Nancy Ryan, who had an interest in health insurance. Ryan said she’d show up. The head of CMW, Thom Clark, told me at the time, “Isn’t it interesting that a business-side reporter is assigned to this? How come the story keeps getting cut as ‘How much is this going to cost?’ instead of ‘What are we paying for?’ Which was what we wanted to get to on the panel.”

Clark invited a Metro Chicago Information Center researcher to bring along copies of the new report and hand them out to reporters. But Ryan and someone from the Chicago Reporter were the only reporters there. A few days later the researcher called Ryan and asked if she’d read the report yet. Ryan hadn’t. Please do, said the researcher.

The result of this persistence and guilt-tripping was an actual acknowledgment of health care needs. The headline to Ryan’s story said, “The have-nots: Health-plan gap found in 13% of area homes; Businesses fear costs of remedy.” She reported that there were 340,000 households in the six-county area with “one or more members who lack health insurance,” and this was “despite the fact that 60 percent of those households include someone who has a job, typically a full-time one.”
A business editor offered Ryan’s story to section one and guess where it wound up? As the top story on the front page! After all, news that hundreds of thousands of local families had no health insurance was a big story. And yet back on the op-ed pages of the very same edition, Tribune columnists were dissing the Clintons for wanting to spend money on health care.

It’s often observed that Hillary Clinton, being around so long, has picked up a ton of baggage. My old column was a glimpse of first-rate journalists originally heaping some of it on her.