This story originally appeared on RollingStone.com.
For weeks prior to Hillary Clinton's hasty exit from the 9/11 memorial event Sunday, surrogates for Republican rival Donald Trump were advancing conspiracy theories about her health. During an August 21 Fox News appearance, Rudy Giuliani advised viewers to "go online and [search for] 'Hillary Clinton illness.'"
"Take a look at the videos yourself," he said, referencing amateur videos that purport to prove Clinton has Parkinson's disease and a neurological disorder and that she's had multiple public seizures. (If you go down this YouTube rabbit hole, you'll also find "evidence" of Clinton being a reptilian shapeshifter.)
The fact that these videos exist at all, and that a major politician like Giuliani would endorse the theories they promote, contributed over the past several days to the transmutation of a relatively inconsequential health disclosure — Clinton having pneumonia — into a story that became emblematic of the Clintons' perceived secrecy.
"The atmosphere of conspiracy theory always colors the reception of any real news of [the Clintons], and I think that's pretty unfortunate," journalist and author Joe Conason says. "In this case, her suffering from pneumonia, which is a quickly curable illness, would be meaningless in almost every case except for two things: one, there is that little film of her stumbling, and two, this atmosphere that's being created around her supposedly being unwell or unfit for the job."
"This is somebody who underwent tremendous stress and an unbelievable work schedule for years as Secretary of State," he says. "She's continued to do that since she began the presidential campaign. She appeared for 11 hours before the Benghazi committee and barely broke a sweat."
When it comes to Clinton-related conspiracy theories, Conason, the founder and editor-in-chief of The National Memo, is something of an expert. In the '90s, Conason was an investigative journalist known for his dogged work at the Village Voice — like his exposé of Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos' clandestine real estate deals — when he received a tip about Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor appointed to investigate Whitewater. Starr's investigation would later expand to include the alleged sexual assault of Paula Jones, the death of White House aide Vince Foster and, eventually, Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky.
"There was a lot about the appointment of Kenneth Starr to investigate Whitewater that really stunk," Conason recalls. "Starr had a lot of conflicts of interest in being the independent council to investigate Clinton. He was very right-wing, he'd worked for the tobacco lobby. There were a lot of problems with him."
"I began to look more and more closely not just at Whitewater itself and all the so-called scandals, but really the origins of all that stuff: Where it was coming from, who was promoting it, and why was the press doing such a bad job, as I discovered, covering these issues?"
The more he investigated, the more convinced Conason became that there existed a concerted, well-financed campaign to take down the Clintons. Conason, with co-author Gene Lyons, investigated the issue in the 2001 book The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton. (The most Hillary-centric portions were re-released as an e-book, The Hunting of Hillary, last year.)
Conason's new book, Man of the World: The Further Endeavors of Bill Clinton, grew out of a 2005 Esquire assignment for which he accompanied the former president on a trip to Africa to observe the Clinton Foundation's work first-hand. The foundation has, of course, recently been the subject of intense scrutiny, as well as right-wing attacks — attacks that, to Conason, feel eerily familiar.
Many of the accusations against the Clinton Foundation stem from the book and documentary Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, which alleges that foundation donors earned preferential treatment from Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. The book was researched and written by Peter Schweizer, the president of the Government Accountability Institute, a group funded and chaired by Republican donors – including Steve Bannon, now the executive chairman of Trump's campaign.
To Conason, it's a shame that the accusations of impropriety have drowned out the good work the foundation does. "I'm pretty sure the author of Clinton Cash, and for that matter all of the journalists who have written stories that denigrate what the foundation's done, have no idea what it's really done. They've never gone to Africa, or Latin America, or any of the places where it operates. They've never talked to any of the people active in the world of AIDS treatment, the crusade to stop the AIDS pandemic, to find out what role the Clinton Foundation has played in it, or what role Clinton himself has played in it," Conason says. "The foundation has done really important work saving people's lives, and the fact that people in the press and on the Republican side of the aisle would be willing to throw that away is just immoral."
Statements like that have helped earn Conason the reputation of a Clinton apologist — a characterization he chafes at. "I wouldn't say I'm an uncritical defender of his at all, or the foundation, but I would say that given the preponderance of coverage going back to Whitewater, and now of the foundation… my reaction to that is that honest journalism would try to correct that," Conason says. "To me the investigation of Whitewater revealed what [Hillary Clinton] called the 'vast right-wing conspiracy.' And guess what? There is such a thing. There was such a thing."
The opinion that the Clintons are fundamentally honest and good people is not a particularly popular opinion to have, even among some supporters. Case in point: while Conason was promoting his new book on Morning Joe earlier this week, hosts Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough grew impatient and incredulous as Conason tried to separate the accusations about the foundation from proven wrongdoing. "Are we all crazy, and there is just no connection" between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department under Clinton? Brzezinski asked. When Conason asked for a specific allegation, Brzezinski had none to offer — she instead referenced the general cloud of suspicion that hangs over the Clintons.
"And I want her to win!" Brzezinski said.
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