Shelby, a born-again Republican Feud: Bad blood between the Alabama senator and President Clinton spilled over on the Senate hearings for director of central intelligence.

Sun Journal

March 20, 1997|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Fairness, like beauty, says Sen. Richard C. Shelby, the burly Alabama Republican who presided over Anthony Lake's contentious confirmation hearings last week, "is in the eye of the beholder."

In Shelby's case, it is the zealous, aggressive eye of the convert, a Democrat-turned-Republican who has become more conservative, more partisan, more fervent than many of his dyed-in-the-wool Republican colleagues.

He is an imposing, self-assured figure, so popular at home that his re-election next year, say Alabama pols, is a given; so criticized here that pundits have called him everything from a "yahoo" to a "political hack."

And with so much bad blood between him and the Clinton administration, some have questioned the motives behind his tough treatment of Lake, who this week withdrew as President Clinton's nominee to be director of central intelligence.

As chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, once hailed for its bipartisan nature, Shelby, 62, challenged not only Lake's political ideology but also his personal integrity.

He rejected the FBI's summary of Lake's background, insisting on the complete, unedited FBI file.

He said he found Lake, Clinton's former national security adviser, wanting as a manager and duplicitous in some of his foreign policy decisions.

In the end, Shelby won, with Lake becoming yesterday's headlines and the new nominee, George Tenet, a former staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee, already blessed by the blunt-spoken Alabamian.

Shelby has defended his inquiry as a "rigorous examination" of the person chosen for "a very important job in America."

And allies on the panel, such as Sen. Jon L. Kyl, an Arizona Republican, took issue with Lake's characterization of the hearings as "brutish" and "nasty."

"I saw a couple of the questions as being a little spirited, but I've seen real nasty hearings before," Kyl said.

"This didn't compare at all."

But Democrats, and even a few Republicans, say the hearings looked like a bare-knuckles crusade by Shelby to bring down Lake, and they believe the Southerner had a score or two to settle.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar, an Indiana Republican, says some of his colleagues thought Shelby wanted to use the hearings to expose the campaign fund-raising irregularities of the Clinton administration.

"I'm certain that some members of the committee found that that was an important objective," Lugar says.

"It was an attempt to expose the presidency in that way."

The Shelby-Clinton feud dates back to 1993, when both were Democrats.

Clinton unveiled his economic plan and pleaded with Democrats in Congress to give him a three-day grace period before picking apart the plan.

But Shelby began immediately, telling reporters, in perfect sound-bite pitch, "The tax man cometh."

The next day, the administration's ire grew as Shelby embarrassed Vice President Al Gore in a scene that made the nightly TV news.

Gore had invited the senator to his office in the Capitol to smooth things over, but Shelby arrived with a bank of TV cameras and lectured Gore on the problems with the proposed budget.

"I didn't like that," Clinton said a few days later.

Which was putting it mildly.

So furious was the White House that it retaliated by moving a $375 million space agency program that employed 90 people in Shelby's home state of Alabama to the Johnson Space Center in Texas.

As an added flourish, when the national champion football team from Shelby's alma mater, the University of Alabama, was honored on the White House lawn weeks later, the White House gave him only one ticket for the event while the state's other senator, Democrat Howell Heflin, received 15.

Shelby dismisses such episodes as history and has told reporters that the president called him during his 1994 bout with prostate cancer as evidence of a truce.

But he cherishes a cartoon that depicts him in a showdown with Clinton, and every time he tangles with the White House, his popularity surges back home.

Shelby, a lawyer who was elected to the House in 1978 and the Senate in 1986, has compiled an increasingly conservative voting record, having lined up with Republicans on almost every issue and turned on the White House on everything from Whitewater to the crime bill to health care reform.

As a Democrat, he supported Clinton less than any other senator in the party.

So it was little surprise when, one day after the Republican

sweep of 1994, Shelby crowned that victory by switching parties.

"You don't know how free I feel," he said, announcing his defection.

The move didn't affect his overall popularity at home, except within core Democratic circles.

"Democrats here would really love to saw his legs off," says Leland Whaley, communications director for the state Republican committee.

"It's like your date leaving you in the middle of the dance."

Not only leaving you, but running away with your archenemy.

As a Republican, Shelby has been among the most conservative and the most outspoken.

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