The Reagan-Bush Scandals

January 10, 1993|By CARL BERNSTEIN

It is often said that, during Watergate, the system worked. Perhaps. But in dealing with its spiritual stepchild -- Iran-contra and the continuing constitutional criminality of the Reagan-Bush years -- it is now painfully apparent that the system has failed.

So badly has it failed that the indisputable constitutional legacy of the Reagan-Bush era -- whatever one's views about the economic, social or foreign policies of those two presidents -- is a precedent of unchecked constitutional violence that has been more damaging to the rule of law than Watergate ever was.

The official response to Watergate was characterized by responsible leadership in both Republican and Democratic parties: Men and women who recognized in Richard M. Nixon's behavior a grave threat to the U.S. constitutional system.

This has not happened on the Reagan-Bush watch -- partly because of the craven congressional leadership of both parties; partly because neither Ronald Reagan nor George Bush set out to be crooks (the one naive and the other clumsy and merely unprincipled); partly because the quality of evidence, though damning, overwhelming and more than sufficient for the courtroom, has not met the almost unattainable Nixonian standard of proof: the Watergate tapes. Ultimately Mr. Nixon's tapes may have made it easier for presidents to escape the full force of the law.

The escalating criminality of the Bush-Reagan era -- in which the breaking-and-entering of Bill Clinton's draft records has become emblematic, just as the break-in of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist was a symbol of the Watergate era -- refuses to go away.

In pardoning Caspar W. Weinberger and some old friends from CIA days, Mr. Bush insured that the stain will not be removed. He has also made stunningly clear the pattern of serious criminality in his and Mr. Reagan's administrations: Hold office at any price.

"The common denominator of their motivation . . . was patriotism," Mr. Bush declared in his Christmas Eve pardons. "They did not profit or seek to profit from their conduct. . . . The prosecutions ... represent what I believe is a profoundly troubling development in the political and legal climate of our country: the criminalization of policy differences. . . . The proper forum is the voting booth, not the courtroom."

Mr. Bush is correct about one thing: The ballot box is the most sanctified right of the U.S. constitutional system. And it has been systematically violated by the Bush-Baker-Barr gang and, preceding their astonishing misconduct, by the Iran-contra conspiracy that gave birth to post-Reagan lawlessness. That is what all of the cover-ups of the Reagan-Bush era have been about: to take away from the people truly free choice in electing a president and the ability to judge whether the elected incumbent should continue to hold office.

From Day One, the day Edwin Meese III announced the "discovery" of the diversion of funds from Iranian arms shipments to the contras, the purpose of the Reagan-Bush cover-ups has been to hold onto the presidency in the face of evidence that, if not suppressed, might well have resulted in either impeachment proceedings or defeat at the polls. That is what the Weinberger notes, in which the former secretary of defense states he warned Mr. Reagan (at a meeting attended by Mr. Bush) that the Iranian arms shipments were possibly illegal, make abundantly clear.

Cover-up I (the initial Iran-contra cover-up that began with Mr. Meese's "investigation" of the Iran-contra connection and insulated Mr. Reagan from the illegal activities of Oliver L. North and others); Cover-up II (the Iraqgate/Banca Nazionale del Lavoro scandal); Cover-up III (the break-in at the National Archives to get Bill Clinton's passport records, involving the senior Bush White House staff), and Cover-up IV (the continuing cover-up of Mr. Bush's role in Iran-contra) all had identical objectives: to thwart constitutional choice by concealing the full record.

* In the initial cover-up of Iran-contra, as Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh has charged, the objective was to avoid impeachment proceedings against Mr. Reagan.

* In the Banca Lavoro cover-up, greased by Attorney General William P. Barr's refusal to appoint an independent counsel, the purpose was to keep the voters from knowing that Mr. Bush and his secretary of state, James A. Baker III, had built up the forces of the same Saddam Hussein that they proceeded to take the United States to war against.

* In the most brazen of all the law-breaking of the Bush-Reagan years -- another White House-authorized break-in to obtain private records of a presidential enemy -- the aim was to thwart the electoral process by illegally obtaining information that might be damaging to Bill Clinton.

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