Act of Christian charity helps Bush elude posse ON POLITICS

December 31, 1992|By Lars-Erik Nelson | Lars-Erik Nelson,Tribune Media Services

WASHINGTON -- Like President Reagan before him, Georg Bush is about to ride off into the sunset one jump ahead of the posse.

He has investigators on his trail in two separate scandals: the search through Bill Clinton's passport files and the Christmas Eve pardon of former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger.

Two independent prosecutors are weighing evidence that might implicate Mr. Bush; at least two congressional committees are considering investigative hearings. After a quarter century of public service, this is not the way he planned to end his career.

But in both scandals, the evidence leads straight to him. Mr. Bush's main consolation: the evidence so far indicates sleazy behavior rather than criminal violations. Prosecutors and congressional investigators will huff and puff. Some will gnash their teeth. But in the end, they will let him go.

Sleaziness alone is not enough to put an ex-president in jail. It is, however, certainly worth recording in the public prints, as

follows:

When Bush aides were caught rifling through Mr. Clinton's passport files last October, Mr. Bush's State Department put its collective head together and found a handy culprit: "low-level people."

In fact, the search had been engineered by the president's $104,000-a-year political appointees at State with the knowledge, from the start, of Mr. Bush's chief of staff, James Baker. Mr. Bush's political director at the White House, Janet Mullins, is now the subject of a criminal investigation by special prosecutor Joseph di Genova.

Mr. Bush himself was to be the beneficiary of the search. And it is indisputable that he would have eagerly used the results. Proof that he would exploit the fruits of such snooping came Oct. 30, when he charged that Mr. Clinton's college ROTC files had been missing. Mr. Bush was desperate for dirt; finding something incriminating in Mr. Clinton's past was his only hope for re-election.

Yet, when the passport hunt was exposed, Mr. Bush, Mr. Baker, Ms. Mullins and the entire State Department hierarchy were willing to let "low-level people" -- the civil service clerks -- take the rap. That's tacky. It's not how a gentleman behaves.

Then, on Christmas Eve, Mr. Bush pardoned Mr. Weinberger, allegedly as an act of Christian charity.

Sure. And how come there was no pardon for Oliver North when he was going through the torture of his own criminal trials three years ago? "The last thing I want to do is intervene in that matter that is now before the courts," Mr. Bush said.

Why is Mr. Weinberger special? Because he could finger Mr. Bush.

"They thought at first that Weinberger would hold solid for them," said a knowledgeable source. "After all, these guys were not like the Nixon crowd after Watergate. Nobody ratted, everybody who covered up was rewarded with a job. But then they realized Weinberger was a 75-year-old guy facing jail. Who knows what he might say?"

So Mr. Bush forgot his reluctance to interfere in matters before the courts and Mr. Weinberger was pardoned -- not only before he was convicted but, far more importantly, before he could testify. Again, tacky.

Still, there is not much stomach to go after Mr. Bush. A Democratic congressional source involved in planning possible hearings is outraged by the Weinberger pardon. But he says, "We don't want to just sit here and take it, but there's really no way we can go after this. We'd have to catch up with six years of Iran-contra investigations -- and we'd have a poisonous split with the Republicans on Day One of a new administration."

"The country's exhausted, we're exhausted, it's time for this to stop," says another Democrat. "Sure, we can keep after them, but at this stage we have to ask ourselves, what are we going to get that's worth the effort? Prove that Bush lied about Iran-contra? Most of the public believes that already."

So Mr. Bush will ride off into the sunset, posing as a great statesman, conqueror of Iraq, imprisoner of Manuel Noriega, victor over communism and deliverer of the magnificent new Start II treaty. No prosecutor will chase him. No congressional committee will subpoena him. And this will be his political epitaph: Whew! He beat the rap. Just barely.

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