Bush should have halted dirty tricks at beginning ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- Talk about locking the door after the horse has been stolen. President Bush's firing of Elizabeth Tamposi -- the State Department official who led the obviously politically motivated search of the passport files of President-elect Bill Clinton and his mother, and whose bureau sleuths also snooped into Ross Perot's file -- doesn't do much to improve his track record on negative campaigning.

By waiting to act until after the election was over -- and the Perot search was revealed -- the president reneged on his pledge at the start of the campaign that he would not tolerate dirty tactics, and would fire anyone on the spot who practiced it.

Ironically, the delay backfired on him. By letting the caper fester through the final days of the campaign, Bush gave Clinton an opportunity he zestfully seized to charge that the man who gave the country the Willie Horton saga in 1988 was still at it.

To justify the passport investigation, it was first noted that the news media had filed Freedom of Information requests to find out what Clinton really was up to when he visited the Soviet Union as a graduate student 23 years earlier.

But that alibi was shot down with the disclosure that the files of Clinton's mother, Virginia Kelley, also were searched, at the FOI request of nobody.

Furthermore, the searches were made on an expedited basis counter to department regulations, removing any doubt that campaign politics was at the root. But all the Bush administration did was start an "investigation."

This was not the first time in the campaign that Bush tolerated negative tactics. In early August, his campaign's political director, Mary Matalin, put out a cutesy press release in the form of a quiz about "sniveling hypocritical Democrats." One of the questions asked: "Which campaign had to spend thousands of taxpayer dollars on private investigators to fend off bimbo eruptions?" The last was a quote from Clinton aide Betsey Wright describing the effort the Clinton campaign had to make to cope with more rumors of infidelity after the celebrated Gennifer Flowers allegations.

"This is not how I want to run the campaign," Bush said through an aide. The result was an "apology" from Matalin -- sort of. The next day, she wrote:

"With respect to our project to expose daily the negative campaign against the president and the hypocrisy of our opponents, it would appear to some that I might have violated, at least in spirit, the president's dictate to the campaign that we avoid references to Governor Clinton's personal life. I regret if the tone of my statement left the wrong impression in that regard. I stand by my criticism of the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party for their unprecedented hypocrisy and for daily disparaging, in the most egregious and personal terms, the President of the United States."

At the same time, Bush expressed "full confidence" in his political aide and privately, it was said, told her to keep up the good work. So she continued her attacks, though somewhat more deftly.

In some Republican post-mortems on the election, it's being suggested that the renewed indictment of former Reagan Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger in the Iran-Contra case, which included a memo indicating that Bush was indeed "in the loop" on arms for hostages, was what killed his chances for re-election.

Just as persuasive a case could be made that revelation of the Bush administration's ham-handed search of the passport files of the Clintons, mother and son, helped put the finishing touches on the incumbent.

At precisely the time Bush was trying to get the voters to zero in on the issues of Clinton's character and trustworthiness, this reminder of past Republican political sleaze compromised the president's ability to press the "trust" issue.

The passport snooping gave Clinton ideal ammunition with which to hit back at Bush's homestretch contention that Clinton could not be trusted in the Oval Office.

Now that the election is over and Bush is headed toward private life, he has sent Tamposi into it ahead of him.

Too bad he wasn't sufficiently outraged about the snooping to say so, and to act, before the votes were in.

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