Helicopter golf gaffe raises attitude, ethics questions

ON THE POLITICAL SCENE

May 28, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Nobody believes President Clinton knew in advance about that dizzy golf outing. And Clinton was quick to fire David Watkins and to pledge that "the taxpayers will be fully reimbursed" for the cost of operating a presidential helicopter on the trip to the country club in Maryland only an hour's drive from the White House.

But Clinton's promise that the taxpayers won't lose "one red cent" misses the point politically. The real problem with the Watkins excursion is the attitude it suggested on the part of another of the president's old friends from Hope, Ark.

Here was a putatively important member of the White House staff -- director of administration at $125,000 a year, according to the organization charts -- winging off for 18 holes on a nice spring workday afternoon and using a chopper that costs something around $2,500 an hour to operate.

Then there was the original and absolutely stupefying cover story from the White House, the tale about Watkins checking out the route and the golf course for security reasons in case Clinton himself decided to play there later. If there is one certain result of this incident, it is that this president will never -- repeat, never -- play golf at the Holly Hills Country Club.

Given the skepticism with which the voters view politicians these days, the episode will be viewed, accurately, as a quintessential example of hubris in high places, the belief that the rules do not apply to those in positions of power.

But for the president, the damage from even such a trivial incident is that it reinforces the perception of the Clinton White House as the gang of folks from a small Southern state who just couldn't seem to get the hang of things.

Watkins, after all, was the same adviser who committed the critical blunder in firing the White House travel office staff immediately after the president took office.

More specifically, the use of the helicopter flies in the face of Clinton's insistence that this administration would not be guilty of such misuse of the trappings of power. Shortly after taking office, the White House made much of a memorandum that declared: "Using such perquisites of office outside the scope of our mission to serve the public is unacceptable."

That memo was, among other things, a bit of political needling that was intended to remind everyone of the haughty behavior of John Sununu when, as President George Bush's chief of staff, he used military planes to keep a dental appointment and to go skiing. Then there was the case of Vice President Dan Quayle and Secretary of Transportation Samuel Skinner using military planes for several golf outings.

Watkins apparently was living on the moon when those previous incidents caused so many red faces. Unsurprisingly, Republicans in Congress, who remembered the incidents only too well, were enjoying the latest White House gaffe immensely, shedding crocodile tears of indignation about the waste of the taxpayers' money all over the House floor.

On the face of it, this is the kind of thing that can happen to any elected official, a stupid mistake by a staff member for which that official is ultimately responsible. A politically ambitious governor of Ohio named John Gilligan once summed up the entire dilemma when he complained that, because the state had employees, "there are 60,000 people who can blow me out of the water any day in the week."

In Clinton's case, the episode comes during what is already a difficult time. On the same day the story broke, the president was explaining why he was reversing his position on granting most-favored-nation trade status for China and the White House was laying out more details of Hillary Rodham Clinton's controversial history in commodities trading.

Nor has this been a good week for Clinton otherwise. His health care reform plan is encountering problems that may be complicated by the departure of Dan Rostenkowski as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. His welfare reform plan has evoked a strong negative reaction from a broad coalition of interest groups. The Democratic Party lost a special election for a House seat in Kentucky after their candidate was depicted as a Clinton clone.

The result is the classic picture of, to use the time-honored cliche, a White House in disarray.

It was an expensive golf game in several ways.

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