Time to stop backing up

March 28, 1997|By Richard Reeves

SAG HARBOR, N.Y. -- Spring break. The men and women of Congress go back to their districts for the usual tongue-lashing, or go abroad to escape it.

The president travels, too, and his wife goes on her annual mother-daughter trip.

Out here, a not-so-young man's fancy turns to peace and quiet in a big house full of noisy children and grandchildren.

But this year, more than most, the tumult of Washington does not die down for Easter. You can hear it all the way to the oceans, or read it when the newspapers get here from New York.

The headlines of the day defy belief. ''F.B.I. Denied Data the White House Sought on China . . . Security Council Was Seeking Material for Albright, but Fell Victim to Inquiry,'' was the line over the lead story of the New York Times.

Is this possible? The White House says it asked for counterintelligence information concerning China for the use of the secretary of state, who was about to go to Beijing -- and the FBI refused to give it to the secretary, or even to the president himself.

Fear of leaks

The agency's director, Louis Freeh, is apparently concerned that confidential counterintelligence material might leak -- as so much does from this White House.

But he is also protecting his own backside, fearful that he and the Justice Department might be criticized for turning over China material while conducting investigations of possible Chinese government attempts to contribute money to Mr. Clinton's 1996 campaign.

At the moment, then, both the FBI and the Justice Department seem to consider themselves above the country's chief executive. That could be the making of a police state in some countries -- whom exactly do they think they are accountable to?

But in our untidy democracy, it is still politics, shrill politics. So far. Whatever the intent, Mr. Freeh is giving the impression that there is substance to charges that something sinister was indeed going on between the president of the United States and a foreign power.

''The exchange,'' reported the Times, ''shows the extent to which the [China] investigation has tied the relationships among federal agencies in knots.''

To an outsider, Mr. Freeh seems presumptuous if not mutinous, but the knot looks to be getting tighter and tighter. Gordian, perhaps. And the time is approaching when only one man can cut the knot, President Clinton. He may be no Alexander, but he has the sword of power.

A counterpuncher

For whatever reasons, Mr. Clinton has more often than not been reluctant to use much of his power. He is by instinct a counterpuncher, brilliant and fast to take advantage of any opening. He scores again and again, using as little energy and giving as little information as possible, just out of reach of the swings and charges of his opponents and questioners.

But he is being backed into a corner on this China business. He may deserve to be roughed up some for his campaign fund-raising. I have no doubt he knew exactly what was going on in his own campaign -- the man is a professional -- but he probably did not break the law and certainly was not about to sell out the country.

What's going on is nuts. The president has to stop backing up. He has to step up, take the blame, take the responsibility and take command of this fight -- or he is going to be knocked right on his aspirations.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/28/97

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