Reversed Roles at the Great Ox-Goring Festival

March 17, 1994|By TRB

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Like all good Clinton supporters, I have been wracking my brain for plausible reasons why there should not be congressional hearings on Whitewater. Hmmm . . . let me see . . . reasons why there shouldn't be Whitewater hearings. . . . Would interrupt the afternoon soaps? Congressman Jim Leach is running out of sanctimony? Heck, I give up. This is more of a job for David Letterman than for a serious political pundit.

Evidently congressional Democrats are having no more success than I am. The one argument they've come up with, and repeated ad nauseam, is that hearings would interfere with the criminal investigation by special prosecutor Robert Fiske.

This is comically disingenuous. It's true enough, as the Democrats point out, that it was the Republicans who wanted the appointment of a special prosecutor in the first place. But it's equally true that the Democrats didn't want one. Yet now Mr. Fiske is their hero.

The politics of Whitewater are full of such reversals. This is Washington's first great ox-goring festival since the Democrats reoccupied the White House, and politicians of both parties are struggling with their new lines. The Democrats' embarrassment is obvious. But the Republicans' embarrassment deserves some dwelling upon, too.

Let's go to the videotape. It's December 1986. The Iran-contra scandal has just broken. Did Senate majority leader Bob Dole support hearings to investigate Iran-contra? Well yes, he did. Mr. Dole cannot be caught out on this one. Mr. Dole actually called for a special session of Congress to arrange for hearings.

However, he and the Republicans were insistent that key witnesses should be given immunity from prosecution for their testimony. Immunity ultimately let Oliver North and John Poindexter off the hook for their crimes. Republicans said at the time that immunity was the only way to get to the bottom of the story, and therefore the issue was a test of good faith. This time around, the Republicans are equally adamant that witnesses should not be given immunity in any hearings.

In Iran-contra, the president's supporters were worried about serious criminality, and so they wanted congressional hearings -- with immunity -- to trump the prosecution. In Whitewater, the president's supporters are more worried about the constant drip-drip-drip of embarrassing revelations, and so they would rather have the prosecution trump the hearings. No prizes for integrity in either case.

Republican hypocrisy has been most comical on the subject of the special prosecutor. There was no choice back during Iran-contra -- the law forced the appointment. But throughout the Reagan-Bush years Republicans opposed the special-prosecutor law, even arguing that it was an unconstitutional infringement on executive power. In 1992 they blocked its renewal. But they clamored for a special prosecutor when Whitewater came along.

Because the law has expired, Mr. Fiske is a pseudo-special prosecutor, appointed by Attorney General Reno rather than by a federal judge. For this reason his independence is sneered at by the very folks who made true independence impossible. Democrats and the Clinton administration have been absolutely consistent on this one: They have always supported renewal of the special prosecutor law.

The Republicans are right -- now -- when they say that a special prosecutor's investigation is not sufficient because raw criminality is not the only issue. There are questions of ethics and public policy, too, which go beyond the prosecutor's brief. That's a good reason to hold hearings. But let's not forget how, during the 1980s, Republicans would turn the special prosecutor's decision not to prosecute into a claim of total vindication. Ed Meese is the leading example here.

It is understandable that intellectual consistency does not rank high in Republican concerns as they make hay with Whitewater. Their attitude seems to be, ''You guys did it to us. Now we're doing it to you.''

There have even been Godfather-like suggestions that once both sides have been bloodied there can perhaps be a truce in the scandal wars. But the ''now we're even'' argument contains an implied moral equivalence (to exhume a fashionable 1980s term). The deal seems to be: If we admit with a sheepish grin that we're making too big a deal out of Whitewater, will you admit the same about Iran-contra? It's a bad deal.

One final role reversal deserves note. Several conservative commentators have taken up the theme that Whitewater is the Clintons' -- and especially Hillary's -- deserved comeuppance for their smug self-righteousness and Manichean worldview, which are deemed to be special sins of liberals. George Will writes of the Clintons' ''punctured moral vanity,'' which they acquired as ''children of the 1960s.'' Even politically indeterminate Joe Klein of Newsweek sneers that ''the liberal elite . . . divides the world between us and them, the high-minded and the greedy.'' And so on.

Funny, I do not recall the triumphant Republicans of the 1980s as great avatars of political toleration and moral relativism. I remember quite a bit of ''us and them'' -- ''them'' being ''liberals.''

Marginalizing of the opposition -- portraying them as beyond some legitimate sphere of discourse -- was a standard Republican rhetorical tactic. Hillary Clinton has never accused her political opponents of being unpatriotic -- a regular theme (usually, but not always, just below the surface) of Republicans in those years.

Congressional hearings on the subject of moral vanity would be very interesting indeed. And no one gets immunity.

TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by Michael Kinsley.

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