No president should get a free ride from his past

April 13, 1994|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- Every now and then a columnist is forced to apologize for something. Today it is my turn:

I'd like to apologize for breathing.

I learned yesterday that I have contributed to a "great blemish" on the American psyche:

I have made you distrust your politicians.

Boy, is my face red.

In the past few months, we have learned things about Bill and Hillary Clinton that we never knew before.

I am not saying we have learned criminal things or terrible things or devastating things.

I am saying that throughout the campaign, we knew virtually nothing about how Bill and Hillary Clinton conducted their financial lives, what kind of dealings they had and with whom.

What we since have learned about in Whitewater and related stories had no place in the carefully constructed image that the Clinton campaign sold to the American people: small town boy from Hope learns that life is about playing by the rules and not cutting corners and cutting deals.

Get rich quick land development schemes? Cattle futures? That was not part of the Clinton image.

Is this important? Maybe not to you. But maybe it is to your neighbor. That's the nice thing about reporting: It lets everybody decide from himself or herself what's important and what's not.

In yesterday's Wall Street Journal, however, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the noted historian, invents some new rules for reporting and claims they are old ones:

"But the current Whitewater hullabaloo," Schlesinger writes, "introduces a startling and unprecedented doctrine: that a president should be investigated not for things he has done as president, but for things he might or might not have been involved in a dozen years before he became president."

Schlesinger goes on: "The traditional assumption has been that a candidate's pre-presidential career is an entirely legitimate election issue but that, once the election is over and the new president has been anointed by the voters, the slate is wiped clean, and the president is thereafter judged on his presidency."

I have three things to say about that: Oh, yeah? Since when? And says who?

Schlesinger would like elections to be a game of tag: If the candidate gets to home base without getting caught, nobody can tag him later.

Bill Clinton would probably agree with Schlesinger. That's why it was so hard to drag information out of Clinton during the election. (Induction notice? What induction notice?)

All Clinton had to do was keep the lid on until Election Day and then he was home free.

And now that he is president, Schlesinger argues, the press should stop pursuing any story relating to what he did before November 1992.

Schlesinger specifically criticizes the New York Times for saying that more rather than fewer resources should be put into investigating Whitewater.

"Why do Times editors think that putting more resources into an investigation of ancient history in Arkansas is so vital for the future of the republic as to justify bringing down an administration that the Times generally supports, or at the very least blocking action on reforms that the Times generally approves?"

Well, Arthur, I'll tell you why: It's called journalism. It's called letting the chips fall where they may. The ancient Romans had a saying for it: "Let justice be done though the heavens fall."

Schlesinger leaves himself some wiggle-room, but in so doing he undoes his entire argument:

"Unless putting in more resources produces some stunning disclosure," Schlesinger writes, "more and more people will agree with Barry Goldwater: Get off the president's back and let him get on with his job."

But how are we supposed to know if there is a "stunning disclosure" out there unless we commit the resources to find it?

Schlesinger does point out that as an "historian and biographer" he does support "historical inquiries for their own sake, and I trust that in due course Bill Clinton will find his Robert Caro."

In other words, Clinton should be investigated only by historians and biographers and only after he is dead.

Personally, I don't want to wait that long to find out who the real Bill Clinton is.

I want to find out now. Or at least before November 1996.

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