It's Politics Of Personal Destruction

April 02, 1995|By CARL M. CANNON

Washington -- Nothing in Gen. Michael Carns' 35-year Air Force career -- not the 200 combat missions he flew in Vietnam, nor the all-nighters in the Pentagon helping to direct Desert Storm -- prepared him for the way politics is now practiced in this city.

Selected by President Clinton last month to be CIA director, General Carns was dealing with a seemingly trivial matter discovered during an FBI background check: He and his wife fudged on immigration forms when bringing over a housekeeper's nephew from the Philippines.

Nothing, it seems, is minor in politics anymore, but General Carns walked away from his nomination without a fight for another reason: unsubstantiated gossip about one of his family members passed on to the FBI by the immigrant he helped enter the country.

"He was ready to come out of retirement and serve the country," said one Air Force friend. "He was not willing to have his family accused of -- whatever."

This phenomenon -- Hillary Rodham Clinton calls it "the politics of personal destruction" -- is not new. And what happened to General Carns is actually minor compared to what many others have endured.

General Carns did not incur hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills while being investigated by a special prosecutor; he was not grilled about personal issues in a televised Senate hearing; he was not subjected to an Ethics Committee investigation into accusations of misconduct without letting him see the evidence.

As such occurrences have become commonplace in Washington, an increasing number of political leaders -- in both parties -- have concluded that democracy in America has been debased.

"It persuades citizens that everyone in Washington is a crook or a reprobate -- and that therefore nothing good can come from government," said American Enterprise Institute scholar Suzanne Garment, author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics."

Much has been made of the fact that General Carns was not Mr. Clinton's first choice for CIA director, but officials in both the Reagan and Bush White Houses also complained about the difficulty of always getting the people they wanted.

"There was that old canard, 'The president calls and you come,' " recalls E. Pendleton James, White House personnel director in the Reagan administration: "But I saw people tell the president they wouldn't come. . . . To them, Washington was this bizarre nightmare of rules and Senate hearings and disclosure forms -- and they're afraid of getting caught up in that web."

Vincent Foster's fate

Vincent W. Foster was considered one of the shining lights in the Arkansas legal community when he came up to help his boyhood friend Bill Clinton by serving as deputy White House counsel. But Mr. Foster got caught up in a messy firing at the White House travel office and months later committed suicide.

"I was not meant for the job or the spotlight of public life in Washington," Mr. Foster wrote in a note found after his death. "Here ruining people is considered sport."

That phrase haunts his old friends in the Clinton administration. But Republicans who have been seared by this spotlight often recite a line of their own. It was uttered by Reagan administration Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan, who, upon being found not guilty by a jury in his corruption trial, was being instructed where to go in the courthouse to complete the post-trial paperwork.

"Which office do I go to," he asked, "to get my reputation back?"

Those caught in this process often lash out at the press, which has different standards regarding personal privacy than it did during the Kennedy presidency and before. But in hindsight, many also focus on a second factor: the disdain, even hatred, that Republicans and Democrats direct at each other.

It begins in the campaigns, they say, where even local candidates contract with nationally known hired guns to produce "attack ads." It continues at confirmation hearings, where each side taps its friendly interest groups to gather dirt on the nominees. It attains a new level in congressional hearings where traps are laid for hostile administration witnesses -- and the penalty for a misstep is a perjury rap. Finally, it reaches its zenith in the special prosecutor system, described as an Orwellian nightmare by those who have experienced it.

Political historians agree that the current environment of mistrust dates to the Watergate scandal and the resignation of Republican President Richard Nixon in 1974. The Democrats elected in the aftermath, including President Jimmy Carter, produced the Ethics in Government Act of 1978. That law contained vast new financial-disclosure requirements, new conflict-of-interest rules and the special prosecutor law.

Today, many Democrats still defend this law. Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, for one, argues forcefully that it is an essential tool to maintain people's faith in government.

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