As tapes haunted Nixon, a diary haunts Clinton

March 30, 1994|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- The cover of Time magazine this week has a morose picture of Bill Clinton holding a hand to his head while George Stephanopoulos, his baby-faced adviser, stands over him with a grim expression on his lips.

Norman Rockwell might have titled it: The Night Junior Wrecked the Car.

For a brief interlude, there had been good news at the White House: Clinton's performance at last week's press conference had boosted his poll ratings.

But Clinton and his Whitewater land deal are still being investigated by all sorts of people. Which is the current problem.

One of the people investigating Whitewater, or more specifically the bank involved in Whitewater, is a guy who hates Bill Clinton.

His name is Jay Stephens and he lost his job as U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia after Clinton took office.

Stephens is a Republican partisan. Before becoming U.S. attorney he was deputy counsel to Ronald Reagan. But when Clinton dumped all 93 Republican-appointed U.S. attorneys, Stephens cried politics.

And he went on "Nightline" and said he was being fired because he was closing in on an indictment of Illinois Democrat Dan Rostenkowski, which Clinton wanted to avoid.

Stephens then began going around Virginia speaking at candidate forums and saying he was "seriously exploring" seeking the Republican nomination as U.S. senator.

Yet this is the guy who federal regulators, appointed by past Republican administrations, now choose to investigate Clinton.

I guess Ed Meese was busy.

Is Stephens a bad appointment? Absolutely.

And did Clinton's people have a right to be angry?

You bet.

So George Stephanopoulos, the senior presidential adviser with the face of a choir boy and the mind of a Pentium computer, decided to do something about it.

Stephanopoulos may be soft-spoken, he may have studied Christian ethics at Oxford, but he believes in the Golden Rule of Politics: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you -- but do it first.

Another White House aide who thought something needed to be done about the Stephens appointment was Harold Ickes, the deputy chief of staff.

Ickes doesn't play by Marquis of Queensbury rules either: In 1973, during a New York mayoral campaign, he reportedly got into a fight with a fellow campaign aide and when a third aide tried to break it up, Ickes bit his leg.

Get the picture? These guys act while others just talk.

So Stephanopoulos and Ickes make a call over to Treasury to see if the Stephens appointment is carved in stone or if he can be dumped.

It's the kind of phone call you don't advertise. You keep it friend-to-friend to assure there are no leaks.

So Stephanopoulos calls his pal, Joshua Steiner, the Treasury chief of staff, and asks about Stephens.

And this week, the cover piece in Time magazine is all about that phone call and now Steiner is going to have to tell a grand jury about it.

At which point you might ask: How did anybody find out about the phone call to Steiner?

"The dumb son of a bitch kept a diary," a senior administration official told Time. "A thorough, compulsive diary."

Which might indicate Steiner is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Or else he has little sense of history.

Let's see: We all learned about Richard Nixon's White House tapes in 1973. At which time Josh Steiner would have been 7 years old. And I guess he never saw the movie.

But why does Steiner need to keep a "compulsive" diary? Why doesn't he just call the Psychic Friends Hotline if he feels the need to recount the day's events?

I can make a guess: He wants a book contract.

Just about everyone in the Clinton administration is thinking about a book contract some day. And to write a book, you have to remember what happened. (Unless you are Ronald Reagan.)

So all sorts of people are keeping dumb diaries.

Which is why Stephanopoulos and Ickes are now in the soup.

But a valuable lesson has been learned: No more phone calls!

If there is a problem with somebody in the future, just send Ickes over to his office.

To bite him.

And give him rabies.

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