An honest SNAFU?

June 13, 1996|By Richard Reeves

NEW YORK -- From the beginning I have thought Whitewater was a smelly can of worms -- dead ones.

Assuming the worst is true, I think we are throwing good money after bad down a cold trail leading nowhere. In the end we may find out that the president has been known to shake down a campaign contributor now and then -- surprise! -- and that his wife tried to set aside a little cash for a rainy day when she might be left alone with a daughter to put through college.

That is just a little Little Rock Teacup Dome, which will end up where Paul Greenberg, the talented editorial-page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, put it more than two years ago: ''A swirly mix of fact and falsehood, impropriety and conflict of interest, suspicion and hypocrisy, excuse and indignation [illuminating] our state's invisible government -- a subterranean network of friends and mentors, kingmakers and pols, fund-raisers and campaign spenders. In short, the whole messy nexus of personal connections that lies behind the carefully arranged scenes and slick lines.''

But the collection of boxes full of background checks of Republicans in the White House basement strikes me as the real thing. I think the Clintons, particularly Mrs. Clinton, are going to get burned this time, and some of her White House loyalists will be lucky to avoid prison.

''Security checks'' in the best of times and circumstances are a cancer on the presidency -- any presidency. And any president, particularly this one, is now unable even to staff his own administration because he has to wait on FBI agents and military officers roaming the country asking stupid questions of people who were in grammar school with James Baker or Warren Christopher.

Taxes for the cleaning lady

The most basic of the questions I have had the privilege of being asked go something like this: ''Did Mr. Baker ever say or do anything that made you think he might be a communist or a terrorist? . . . Did you ever hear that he might not be paying Social Security taxes for his cleaning lady?''

Please! Since the defeat of international totalitarian communism, the checks on thousands and thousands of potential federal appointees have had only three conceivable purposes: (1) a jobs program for agents and officers and White House lawyers; (2) a rough search for scandal or human frailty that could embarrass a president; (3) negative research on potential adversaries of the president.

That last one, again and again, has proved irresistible to the folks lucky enough to have a short-term lease to exercise the powers of the White House. I doubt the Clintons and their subordinates were able to resist the temptation -- as people in the White House of George Bush could not resist the urge to get a look at Bill Clinton's military records or lack of same.

The inevitable next step is trying to cover up such transgressions when someone notices pickup trucks bringing files from the Justice Department and Pentagon to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

If that happened, someone is going to pay, probably not the president and his wife themselves, but people who may have lied for them. Those who do not understand history, particularly the history of the Nixon White House, are doomed to repeat it, perhaps beginning with Mrs. Clinton's chief of staff, Margaret Williams, or her zealous old friend, Susan Thomases.

A blown transition

The president has already paid part of the cost. Like some before him, President-elect Clinton blew his transition. From the first week of November 1992 to the third week of January 1993, he concentrated on appointments, often finding himself unable to make them while he waited for the damned security checks. He thought he had time, because he thought the ridiculously intricate appointment process would dominate the presidency as dominated the presidency-elect.

But that is not the way it works. Once he is actually in the Oval Office, a president has almost no time to worry about deputy secretaries, district court judges or even who should be his attorney general or director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

President Clinton fell further and further behind in his appointments and, because of the time required for security checks and his reluctance to submit names for confirmation by a Republican-controlled Senate, will not be able to fill all the bTC appointments available to him by the end of his first term.

That is why the administration is being plagued now by unfilled judgeships, holdover Republicans (some of them diligently trying sabotage the administration), and a stranger as attorney general, the one official who can bring down a president, through incompetence or a desire to protect her name and reputation at the expense of her boss's.

The president may be right when he says this is a ''SNAFU'' -- the military gripe, cleaned up a bit, ''Situation Normal, All Fouled Up'' -- but he has to take responsibility for this foul-up and the fouled-up situation left over from years of knee-jerk anti-communist zealotry in one White House after another.

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Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/13/96

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