Cody Shearer

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
May 22 1999 3:30 AM

Cody Shearer

If he didn't exist, the vast right-wing conspiracy would have invented him.

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On Tuesday, May 11, Chris Matthews interviewed Kathleen Willey on CNBC's Hardball, the cable program that aspires to be to the Clinton scandals what Nightline was to the Iranian hostage crisis and Robert MacNeil's PBS show was to Watergate. Casual viewers may have thought they were watching some kind of "best of Monicagate" retrospective--isn't Kathleen Willey awfully 1998? But to conspiracy theorists, Flytrap trivia buffs, and media creatures for whom the end of the scandal is likely to mean extinction, Willey's re-emergence yielded a small, ambiguous, but nonetheless tantalizing tidbit.

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On Jan. 8 last year, shortly before she was to testify in the Paula Jones trial, Willey reportedly had a frightening encounter with a jogger near her house in Richmond, Va.--a complete stranger who nonetheless seemed to know quite a bit about Willey's children, her car, and her cat. Though Willey declined to identify the man on Hardball--Kenneth Starr's office, she said, had asked her not to--Matthews seemed to have a pretty good idea who he was. "Is it someone in the president's family, friends?" He pressed Willey. "Is it somebody related to Strobe Talbott? Is it a Shearer?"

What's a Shearer, you ask? A Shearer is a member of a semi-prominent journalistic/political family connected to Bill Clinton in a number of ways. To hard-core Clinton-haters, these connections are evidence of Clinton's true political colors--the social-democratic, New Left, McGovernite, anti-free-enterprise, America-hating tendencies he has so brilliantly camouflaged.

The Shearers are also the kind of people Republican mugwumps despise most viscerally: privileged, socially and professionally ambitious dissenters whose liberal-left politics don't prevent them from enjoying the prerogatives of membership in the establishment. Lloyd Shearer, the patriarch of the clan, was for many years the editor of Parade magazine, which, during the Reagan era, interspersed its celebrity profiles and sensible recipes with anxious warnings about the dangers of the nuclear arms race. His son Derek, a former professor at Occidental College, served in Clinton's Commerce Department and then as his ambassador to Finland. Derek also co-authored a book called Economic Democracy, which served as something of a manifesto for Tom Hayden when the former SDSer abandoned radicalism for the California Senate in the early 1980s. Worse yet, Derek's wife, Ruth Yannatta Goldway, was elected mayor of Santa Monica in 1981 on a pro-rent-control ticket. To a Southern California Republican, this is like saying she was the president of North Korea. Derek's sister Brooke worked on Hillary Rodham Clinton's staff and is married to Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, the president's buddy from his Oxford days, long suspected by the right of being soft on communism. But Matthews did not suggest that any of these Shearers were stalking Kathleen Willey in a quiet Virginia subdivision on a damp winter morning. The Shearer in question, he declared, was Brooke's twin brother, Cody.

This is not the first time Cody Shearer's name has floated to the top of the murky stew of supposition, innuendo, and sleaze that passes for political discourse in America these days. Joe Conason, who debunks rumors about Clinton and his circle with the same dogged zeal with which Matthews advances them, defended Shearer in a recent Salon column. Shearer could not have been Willey's stalker, Conason declared, because he was in San Francisco Jan. 8. Three days later, flying home to Washington, Shearer happened to bump into his brother-in-law's old boss former Secretary of State Warren Christopher. And as a result of being smeared by Matthews, Matt Drudge, and Rush Limbaugh, said Conason, Shearer had been subject to death threats and other forms of terror. (The most disturbing instance was the appearance, a few days after Matthews' interview with Willey aired, of an armed man on Cody Shearer's lawn. The man, who later surrendered, turned out to be Pat Buchanan's brother Hank. Go figure.) Matthews has since apologized for mentioning Shearer's name on the air.

For his part, Conason declined to explain why the bare possibility of Shearer's involvement in the harassment of Willey was so gleefully seized upon by Clinton's own designated harassers. If Cody Shearer did not exist, Richard Mellon Scaife would have given someone a grant to invent him. Or maybe, like Lee Harvey Oswald in Don DeLillo's Libra, Shearer is both real and invented--a creature of multiple coincidences who seems at the same time to be operating in the service of a grand, impenetrable design. When members of the vast right-wing conspiracy talk about their counterparts in the vast left-wing conspiracy, Cody Shearer's name is bound to come up sooner or later.

Is Shearer a private citizen unfairly sucked into the vortex of public scandal? If so, the vortex is awfully good at finding him. In published reports, Shearer is most often described as a journalist or a free-lance writer. His byline has been rather scarce during most of the Clinton era. Through the '80s he co-wrote, with Maxwell Glen, a syndicated column on politics and culture, which addressed such motley topics as trucking deregulation and the ill effects of skin magazines on the male libido. In 1989, the column dug up several embarrassing incidents of drunkenness in the past of John Tower, whose nomination to be secretary of defense was derailed by questions about his alcoholism and sexual irresponsibility.

A conspiracy theorist might infer that in helping to sink Tower, Shearer was already acting as the cat's paw of a Democratic dirty tricks operation--or, at least, that the Tower affair whetted his appetite for political dirt-digging and skullduggery. In any case, it was Shearer who, during the 1992 presidential campaign, introduced the world--through the unlikely medium of Doonesbury--to Brett Kimberlin. Kimberlin, you may recall, was the convicted bomber, habitual liar, and all-around sociopath who claimed to have sold drugs to Dan Quayle. Was Shearer acting on behalf of the legendary Clinton "opposition research" outfit, which had floated damaging rumors during the '92 primaries about Paul Tsongas' health and Jerry Brown's drug use? Or was he just an enthusiastic free-lancer?

A similar question arose during Sen. Fred Thompson's long, comprehensive, and inconclusive hearings into the Democratic Party's 1996 campaign fund-raising shenanigans. There, Shearer's name popped up in the course of Sen. Don Nickles' angry questioning of Terry Lenzner, the private investigator who would later, in the thick of the Jones/Lewinsky/Willey/Who Knows Who Else matter, be accused (by Dick Morris, among others) of coordinating efforts to smear and intimidate those women. Shearer had apparently acted as a liaison between Lenzner's firm, Investigative Group International, and the Cheyenne-Arapaho tribe. The tribe had donated more than $100,000 to the Democratic Party, hoping, according to testimony, that the administration would intervene on its behalf in a dispute over drilling rights on tribal land. Lenzner had been retained to uncover compromising links between Nickles--who opposed the tribe's claims--and local oil interests. Lenzner, while he admitted that he had accepted the tribe's retainer, has denied that Cody Shearer had ever worked for IGI--though the firm did once employ his sister Brooke.

Shearer's efforts as a free-lance political fixer have not been limited to domestic affairs. Much to the embarrassment of his brother-in-law and the consternation of others in the State Department, details have recently emerged about Shearer's efforts, in 1996 and 1997, to arrange for Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic to surrender to the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague. According to his lawyer, Shearer took less than $25,000 from an associate of Karadzic's in France in the fall of 1997. Accounts vary as to what happened next, but it appears that Shearer was either duped by the Serbs or double-crossed by them. Karadzic, as the saying goes, is still at large.

Cody Shearer is a man with many connections, able to convince Bosnian Serbs, Cheyennes and, unintentionally, Washington Clinton-haters that he is a player, a person who makes things happen. But he may just be a person who things happen to happen to, a guy with a penchant for pretending to be what others want to believe that he is. Every time he turns up on the scene--and even when (as in the case of Kathleen Willey) he doesn't--people ask: What's he doing here? He probably asks himself the same question.

Editor's note: Several errors in this piece as originally posted have been corrected. Click here to read a letter to the editor criticizing the original version.

A.O. Scott is a film critic at the New York Times.

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