Maybe Nussbaum knew Whitewater all too well

March 11, 1994|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- We are being asked to believe that Bernie Nussbaum just didn't get it.

He was from New York and he didn't understand Washington.

Nussbaum, Bill Clinton's White House counsel, had been a very successful New York attorney known for vigorously defending his clients.

But he did not understand that Washington is different from New York.

That's what Bill Clinton said this week in announcing Nussbaum's successor, Lloyd Cutler, an old Washington hand.

"I think that the culture here and the whole procedures here are quite different than they are in most any other place in the country," Clinton said. "And I think it's something we have to be very sensitive to."

Which is the popular wisdom:

Washington is a very, very strange place where the rules are known only to the insiders.

But let me advance another theory: Bernie Nussbaum, formerly the senior lawyer for the Watergate committee, understood Washington, the presidency, the rules and his job very, very well.

He understood that it is a lawyer's job to protect his client, and that is what he was doing.

"Any lawyer worth his salt would have done exactly what I did," Nussbaum said recently.

And that, I think, is exactly the point that is being overlooked.

We don't know how much Nussbaum knew about the full extent of Bill and Hillary Clinton's involvement in the Whitewater land deal and related events. But he had to know something.

And, armed with that knowledge, he took very forceful actions to keep their involvement private:

Four hours after Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster's body was discovered on July 20, 1993, Nussbaum searched Foster's office, accompanied by Margaret Williams, who is Mrs. Clinton's chief of staff, and another White House aide.

(Why on earth did Hillary Clinton need someone at a search of Vince Foster's office? That is just one of many unanswered questions about that evening.)

Nussbaum removed Whitewater documents from Foster's office and sent them over to Clinton's personal attorney.

The next day, U.S. Park Police showed up to go through the office as part of their investigation into Foster's death, but the Secret Service would not let them inside.

Two days after the death, Nussbaum finally allowed the police to enter, but he blocked their view of Foster's desk as he went through the remaining papers, deciding what the police could see.

And when this and other stories began leaking out, Nussbaum advised the president to hang tough:

He advised Clinton to resist calls for a special counsel to investigate Whitewater.

He advised Clinton not to turn over his Whitewater files.

He helped arrange for a Justice Department subpoena to keep the Whitewater file away from reporters.

Why?

Because he is a New York lawyer who doesn't understand the arcane ways of Washington?

Because as a Washington outsider he could not appreciate how his activities would make the president look bad?

No, I think people from Portland to Peoria to Pittsburgh easily could have predicted, exactly as Nussbaum could have predicted, how his actions would cast a cloud over Clinton's presidency.

But Nussbaum undertook them anyway.

Why? And why did Nussbaum meet with Treasury officials to get briefed on how the Whitewater investigation was going, an act which, when it became public, forced his resignation?

Maybe because Nussbaum had no choice. Maybe because the alternative was worse. Maybe because Nussbaum understood the possible implications of Whitewater.

Nussbaum said in his letter of resignation that he was leaving "as a result of those who do not understand, nor wish to understand, the role and obligations of a lawyer."

Do not write that comment off to bitterness. Look at what Nussbaum is telling us:

His "role and obligations" to defend Bill Clinton caused him to do everything he did.

And in the end, I think we may learn that Bernie Nussbaum did what he did not because he understood Washington too little, but because he understood Whitewater too well.

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