Finding the scapegoat is proper pursuit for Clinton White House

June 21, 1996|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The latest rhubarb over the Clinton White House acquisition of FBI files on former Reagan and Bush administration figures illustrates once again the political peril facing any president from the conduct of underlings.

White House counsel Jack Quinn has said that he, White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta and President Clinton himself all take responsibility for what Mr. Quinn continues to insist was no more than a bureaucratic mistake. Rather than punishing the minor official directly in charge of White House security, one-time Democratic political operative Craig Livingstone, the White House has placed him on administrative leave with pay until the smoke clears.

Mr. Quinn says the Clinton White House must take care not to "scapegoat" anyone in what was simply a comedy of errors. That attitude no doubt will go down well within the administration bureaucracy, and it tends to support the contention that the whole business was just a screw-up without partisan political motivation.

But even if the allegation is incompetence rather than venality, it is reasonable to ask why the official directly involved should not take the fall, rather than essentially meaningless acceptances of responsibility by those at the top, about whom there is no indication yet that they were in any way involved.

Presidential blame

In some matters of great importance it is certainly desirable that the president accept the blame for what has gone awry. In 1961, in the wake of the calamitously failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, President John Kennedy wasted little time doing so as the responsible officer, although later inquiries showed that he had received horrible advice from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Kennedy survived that disaster politically in part because he said it was ultimately his fault and got credit from voters for his candor. President Jimmy Carter likewise accepted responsibility for the fiasco of the failed mission to rescue American hostages in Iran in 1980.

There are, nevertheless, lesser occasions when heads of subordinates justifiably ought to roll, and this seems to be one. How anyone with the least bit of political sensitivity, as Mr. Livingstone from his background in politics presumably has, could fail to reject FBI files of the likes of prominent Republicans James Baker and Ken Duberstein is beyond comprehension. But major political figures are forever suffering from the obtuseness of second-string aides.

Perhaps the most memorable was the enlistment by Nixon White House aide Dwight Chapin of an old college buddy named Donald Segretti to play a variety of dirty tricks on Democratic presidential candidates in the 1972 campaign. Mr. Segretti's antics, which ranged from the scurrilous to the silly, including charges of sexual misconduct and picketing and disrupting Democratic political rallies, led him to plead guilty to three misdemeanor charges and got him six months in jail.

Stupid conduct

Mr. Chapin later was convicted himself of two charges of perjury and was sentenced to a minimum of 10 months. What Mr. Segretti did under Mr. Chapin's direction was stupid, but it added to the Watergate avalanche that eventually buried Richard Nixon.

There probably hasn't been an administration since the end of World War II wherein some subordinate hasn't made his president pay for his sins, in one way or another: Harry Truman and Harry Vaughn; Dwight Eisenhower and Sherman Adams; Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Baker; Nixon and a small army; Jimmy Carter and Bert Lance; Ronald Reagan and Oliver North.

So it's fine for a president or his chief spokesman to say the president takes responsibility when something goes wrong within his official family. But the real culprit more often than not is somebody further down the roster, and good politics as well as good government should require that such people pay a price rather than be allowed to hide behind a general presidential assumption of blame.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 6/21/96

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