The Helpful Mr. Rubin's Friendly Letter

GARRY WILLS

February 09, 1993|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO. — Chicago -- In the comic strip ''Doonesbury,'' the character Joanie Caucus was recently considered for a Justice Department post. All of a sudden, old acquaintances from law school or later started calling her. They saw a channel of influence opening up to them. Joanie firmly turned all such moves away.

Robert Rubin, former co-chairman of the Goldman Sachs investment banking firm, does not live in a comic strip. Maybe that is why his conduct is so distant from Joanie's. Instead of turning away contacts in the hope of influence, he has encouraged them, by unmistakable signals.

Writing to former clients, he informed them of his appointment by President Clinton to be the administration's top economic adviser, as the head of a brand-new National Economic Council (meant to be the domestic equivalent of the National Security Council).

Mr. Rubin wrote a letter to his many clients: ''I hope I can continue to rely on your interest and support as I move from Broad Street in New York to Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., and would be grateful for whatever suggestions you would offer.''

In other words, ''Call anytime and tell me what you want.''

He continued: ''I am confident that Goldman Sachs will continue to work as well or even better [with the addressee now that Mr. Rubin is in Washington].

In other words, ''We are stronger for having our man in Washington'' -- a blatant use of the appointment to promote the firm.

Apologists for Mr. Rubin say he is just telling people that the firm is in good hands. But the ''even better'' phrase has another possible meaning that its recipients would be quick to recognize. If Mr. Rubin did not intend that meaning, he was clearly misleading his correspondents.

If the previous sentences were open to more innocent construction, the ending seals, cumulatively, the message Mr. Rubin was trying to send: ''I also look forward to continuing to work with you in my new capacity.''

In other words, ''Now I'm in an even better position to help you.''

Dee Dee Myers, President Clinton's press secretary, says this is just a restatement of the administration's willingness to work with everybody.

If you believe that, you must have a backyard full of purchased bridges. Have you received your letter saying you will get special services now that Mr. Rubin has his ''new capacity''? I haven't, and neither has the man who mows my lawn. Yet we are all presumably included in the term ''everybody.''

Some say it is impossible to meet the high standards of a Joanie Caucus. But Mr. Clinton claimed, during the campaign, that he could. If he now tells us that it is impossible, he has made things worse, increasing the cynicism.

He has already hedged on the ''fixer'' backgrounds of appointees such as Ron Brown and Mickey Kantor. If he lets Robert Rubin go unrebuked, he has issued an invitation to everyone who wants to continue business as usual.

The best thing he could do is withdraw Mr. Rubin's appointment. That would make it clear to people who now seem undiscourageable that he meant what he said in the campaign. Otherwise, the shiny new administration is already tainted, and bound to get more tarnished, fast.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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