Banana republics get better leadership

June 26, 1996|By Carl T. Rowan

WASHINGTON -- It was President Johnson on the phone, talking about a man he hoped I would hire at the U.S. Information Agency. ''When you get his files, you'll see that he had a little VD during World War II. But, hell, most real men have had a little VD.''

LBJ, like many others of the Vietnam War era, had a lively and sometimes mean fascination with the contents of the FBI personnel files. With the cooperation of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, he often abused those files by looking for dirt on war protesters. What Johnson did was only half-scandalous compared with what Hoover himself did. He kept private files on American presidents, congressmen and other prominent citizens, and was known to use them to blackmail or extort favors. Raw bilge from Hoover's investigative files fueled what the FBI finally admitted were 25 separate campaigns to destroy Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1966, Hoover told Richard M. Nixon that he had a report from an agent about Nixon's secret liaisons with a woman in Hong Kong named Marianna Liu. Hoover added, ''I'm sure it's not true. I just want you to know that I'll tuck it away and see that it doesn't get all around town.''

Alas, Nixon himself became one of the most menacing abusers of FBI files and other resources during the Watergate era.

And now comes this disquieting, disgraceful business of the Clinton White House demanding -- and getting -- hundreds of FBI files about Republican staffers of the White House. We will have to endure congressional hearings, an investigation by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and endless campaign rhetoric, because the Clinton people look guilty of some sinister behavior.

Pre-emptive facts

The president looked foolish trying to dismiss the current caper as a ''bureaucratic snafu.''

I can't understand why the Clinton administration has not tried to do the right thing by at least giving Americans some pre-emptive facts. For example:

Who is the highest-ranking White House official, or member of Mr. Clinton's re-election team, who approved or knew of the request to the FBI for the files?

What was that official's rationale for this request?

Did the FBI question the propriety of sending the White House so many sensitive files, given the previous woes of the FBI because of improper use of the files?

Who in the FBI actually approved delivery of the files?

Who in the White House, including secretaries and aides, had access to these files?

From which files was information taken; to whom was such information disseminated, and to what use was it put?

This is the least that the White House can give voluntarily, sparing the country a wait to see what probers and investigators can drag out.

Not to voluntarily issue such information leaves the Clinton administration looking like a bunch of two-bit sleazeballs who will violate laws of privacy for political advantage. It cloaks the Clinton White House in world-class arrogance if, when caught in a romp through the files, it says, ''OK, let's see you figure out what we were doing and then convince voters that we're guilty of something.''

Even a banana republic deserves better leadership!

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/26/96

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