Gravegate: "Scandal" Before THE Scandal  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   March 1998

Gravegate: "Scandal" Before THE Scandal   

How the media covered allegations that the Clinton White House was securing plots in Arlington National Cemetary of big Democratic donors.

By Kelly Heyboer
Kelly Heyboer is a reporter at the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey.      


How the media covered allegations that the Clinton White House was securing plots in Arlington National Cemetary of big Democratic donors.

Among the scandals orbiting Bill Clinton's presidency, Gravegate hardly raises an eyebrow these days. But in the weeks before Monica Lewinsky entered the national consciousness, allegations that the White House secured plots for Democratic big donors in Arlington National Cemetery kept the Washington press corps hopping.

The buzz faded from the front pages after former ambassador to Switzerland Larry Lawrence was disinterred in December amid evidence he may have faked his war record. But it was how the Gravegate story began — with a series of unsubstantiated rumors hyped by talk radio — that gave media watchers pause and signaled the increasingly blurry line between gossip and news.

In retrospect, the story itself "was just another blip," says Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz. "But it was an important blip because it shows the extent to which big news organizations can be stampeded into picking up bogus charges."

ühe complex Arlington story had humble beginnings. Last summer, the Army Times and WJLA, Washington, D.C.'s ABC affiliate, ran stories questioning whether politics had anything to do with the high number of Arlington burial waivers granted by Clinton.

The stories didn't catch on, but across town Paul Rodriguez began researching the allegations after he heard similar rumors while working on a story about gulf war illness.

"I started getting the brush off and thought that was an odd thing," says Rodriguez, managing editor of Insight, a conservative weekly magazine owned by the Washington Times Co.

Rodriguez, 46, a former Washington Times investigative reporter, kept on the Arlington story for months, meeting Pentagon sources at night, in the cemetery, looking at the case files of people granted burial waivers. It became apparent, Rodriguez says, that the strict rules on who gets buried in the military cemetery were not being followed.

Insight ran the story in the December 8 issue under the headline "Is There Nothing Sacred?"

"Pressure from political bigwigs at the White House and within the Democratic Party apparently helped gain coveted waivers from top brass at the Defense Department and Department of Veterans' Affairs for dozens of big-time political donors or friends of the Clintons," Rodriguez wrote. His story didn't contain a single named source or reveal the identities of any undeserving graveholders.

The Insight story was news before the magazine even went to press. An Insight press release outlining the piece got the ball rolling. Conservative talk radio and some veterans' newsgroups on the Internet picked up on the story. Within 24 hours, the magazine got hundreds of phone calls requesting the text of the still-unpublished article.

Then Rush Limbaugh kicked the scandal into high gear when he received Rod-riguez's story the day before Insight hit the newsstands. "He went on the air and read the story, and that opened up the floodgates," Rodriguez says.

Within days, high-ranking Republicans were calling for investigations, and the allegations in Rodriguez's story found their way into nearly every major newspaper — despite the lack of on-the-record sources or evidence to back them up.

The Washington Post's national staff initially passed on the story, leaving metro reporters to cover it when readers began calling the newsroom to ask why the paper was ignoring a controversy in its own backyard, according to staffers.

"Talk radio and a few members of Congress had the ability to put something on the media agenda," says Kurtz.

White House denials and an emotional press conference by Army Secretary Togo West followed. The dearth of evidence to support the initial rumors led to media self-flagellation — with columnists asking what the press has become when it jumps blindly on a story broken by an aggressively conservative magazine that used only anonymous sources.

"The Clintonites have hidden behind double-talk so often, it was tempting to believe the Republicans' sinister allegations," Maureen Dowd wrote in the New York Times.

Within the press corps, feelings about the story's legitimacy seemed to vacillate day to day. Rodriguez says he was initially criticized by colleagues for how he broke the story, then received pats on the back and a small round of applause from fellow reporters at a Capitol Hill press conference less than a week later.

Mark Salter, aide to Arizona Sen. John McCain, one of the Republicans investigating the charges, says the media coverage of the "scandal" was schizophrenic, even by Washington standards. "It was a mess," says Salter.

The fading Arlington story took an upswing when evidence emerged that Larry Lawrence was granted burial at Arlington with what appeared to be a fabricated war record. Lawrence's wife had him disinterred and reburied in California to squelch controversy over whether he ever served on a Merchant Marine ship bombed in World War II.

But even with Law-rence's disinterment there was still no evidence to support the initial allegations that the Clinton White House sold burial plots. Neither the left nor the right could claim any real victory in Gravegate, and the media seemed to flounder.

?ven the San Diego paper, which serves Lawrence's hometown of Coronado, took hits for its coverage. "The Union- Tribune was criticized by both the left and the right," says Peter Rowe, the paper's veteran columnist. "The right said we went too easy. The left said we've always had it out for Larry Lawrence."

Lawrence, former owner of the famous Hotel del Coronado, was a local celebrity known for his larger-than-life personality and matching ego. He had a historically rocky relationship with the Union-Tribune's editorial board.

The complete story behind Lawrence's "Gatsbyesque" war record will probably never be known, Rowe says. "We really dropped the ball — we the media — as soon as Lawrence's widow agreed to [move] the grave."

But Lawrence's name managed to slip into another scandal in January, when new rumors were fueled by conservative spinner Arianna Huffington on CNBC's "Equal Time." The talk this time was that his widow, Sheila, though she denies it, was among women alleged to have had affairs with the president.

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