It goes beyond 'politics as usual'

March 11, 1997|By Carl T. Rowan

WASHINGTON -- In the area of ethics and morals, the Clinton administration has been bleeding from Day One. Allegations about the president's sexual improprieties and his financial wheeling and dealing as governor of Arkansas have dogged this administration like a bloodhound following a jailbreak.

Now the bleeding has become a hemorrhage, with each day bringing new charges and allegations that are bound to taint even the views of millions of Democrats about the basic integrity of the president himself, of the first lady, of Vice President Gore, and of the people closest to them.

In over four decades in this town I've seen a lot of crooks and sleazeballs, including a president, Richard Nixon, who was inclined to brazen criminal behavior. But I've never seen an entire administration in which so many top people worked so hard to earn the distrust of ordinary citizens.

It is hard to believe that people who in November surmounted every allegation of personal immorality to win re-election could now be mired in evidence that they abused their power, cut moral and legal corners and may have engaged in unlawful behavior in order to retain control of the government.

You can start out, as I do, saying that the Clinton people won in 1992 in a political system that was already corrupted by big money. You can say that the Clinton Democrats, who were being outspent by 65 percent, decided to beat the Republicans at their well-coached big-money game.

Giving back $3.5 million

But you can't in good conscience say it was just ''politics as usual'' when the Democrats accepted $3.5 million in contributions that they now have to give back. In the raising of these funds there was colossal bad judgment by Mr. Clinton in urging invitations to big donors to use the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House.

Vice President Gore clearly ran out of bounds with his fund-raising at a Buddhist temple, and with his fund-raising calls from the White House. Mr. Gore's claim that he and the president are exempt from fund-raising laws just cannot be sold to the people.

Mrs. Clinton is damaged in many ways, especially by the huge headlines about the fact that her chief of staff was the conduit for a $50,000 donation to the Democratic National Committee from Johnny Chung, who seemed to be a suspect, hustling lobbyist for China, which is suspected of making secret payoffs to influence both U.S.-Asian policy and the outcome of the 1996 elections.

OK, so Republican staffers and GOP senators have taken campaign donations in the White House, in House and Senate office buildings, and most everywhere else in the past. These officials, along with Mrs. Clinton's aide, Maggie Williams, apparently committed no crime in the context of elections in which almost everything was doable when it came to raising ''soft'' money.

But this climate generates huge, damaging headlines that no GOP officials ever had to endure. That's because this bunch of Democrats has created such an aura of slickness murking into criminality that anything done as routine within our flawed election system is now viewed as Clinton-approved lawlessness.

The public is just not going to take an ''everybody does it'' explanation of reports that Clinton friend Webster L. Hubbell, his disgraced former associate attorney general and former law partner of Mrs. Clinton, got payments of more than $400,000 from several sources, including the Riady family in Indonesia, just after he resigned in the face of a criminal investigation. The implications are strong that payments were made to get Hubbell to take a criminal fall while keeping secret improper things that he had done at the behest of or in support of the president and Mrs. Clinton.

There may not be a tourniquet on earth big enough to stop the bleeding now, but President William Jefferson Clinton must quickly understand that his decent place in history is at risk.

If he can figure out any truths to tell the American people that might lift the stinky pall over his administration, he had better speak up. And soon.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/11/97

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