Clinton scandals yielding benefits for GOP loyalists

Bush taps lawyers who led the charge against then-president

April 29, 2001|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Back in the thick of the Clinton era, when scandal investigation seemed to be the town's chief form of recreation, lawyer Michael Chertoff sat by the side of then-Republican Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, doggedly grilling administration officials about everything from Arkansas real estate to a mysterious suicide, and suggesting the first lady was in the eye of the Whitewater storm.

Across town, Brett M. Kavanaugh, a young lawyer and longtime protege of Kenneth Starr, led the Whitewater independent counsel's inquiry into the death of Clinton White House counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr. and later would write much of the Starr report, thong details and all.

Viet D. Dinh, another young lawyer and rising star among conservative legal scholars, went from Whitewater investigator to Georgetown University law professor to TV pundit, guiding CNN viewers through the impeachment saga and calling the Lewinsky episode "a case about lies -- lies under oath and lies to the grand jury."

Today, these three lawyers, along with a number of other Republicans who made names for themselves as part of the extensive Clinton scandal industry -- what Hillary Rodham Clinton viewed darkly as a "vast right-wing conspiracy" -- have prominent places in the burgeoning Bush administration.

Chertoff has been named head of the criminal division at the Justice Department. Kavanaugh has become an associate White House counsel and Dinh has been tapped for assistant attorney general for policy development.

The appointment of those who were part of independent counsel or congressional probes into the previous president's activities or lent their voice to the constant hum of analysis and comment that became a soundtrack to the Clinton years points to the conservative bent of the Bush White House. The appointments also reflect that the new president, who ran as a Washington outsider, is relying heavily on the town's insiders to fill out his administration.

And the staffing of the administration also highlights the fact that those who played a role in taking down -- or at least trying to take down -- Clinton are now reaping benefits in the aftermath of his scandal-laden presidency.

"To be involved in such a battle is to demonstrate one's ideological credentials and zealotry," says Marshall Wittmann, a conservative analyst at the Hudson Institute. "Clearly, they got more visibility, and they've proven their ideological bona fides. They've passed the test at the ideological passport office."

It stands to reason that those who earned their conservative spurs in anti-Clinton pursuits should end up in key positions in the administration of a man who ran as a conservative. The crusade against Clinton is what "animated conservatism for the last eight years," Wittmann said.

Liberals who have opposed some of Bush's nominees, especially his choice for attorney general, agree. "There's no question the administration is shaping up as one of, if not the most right-wing in history, particularly in areas related to justice and the courts," says Elliot Mincberg, legal director at People for the American Way. "It's not a coincidence that that corresponds with people involved in the Clinton scandals. That was an important career step for many right-wing conservatives."

Some Democrats even see these appointments as payback. "This is the rewarding of the vast right that went on the crusade against the Clinton presidency," says Jennifer Backus, spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee. "Bush has taken the vitriol he decried on the campaign trail and made it official."

But Republicans say these Bush appointees were likely candidates for jobs in a GOP administration with or without their Clinton-era battle ribbons.

The highest concentration of one-time Clinton antagonists can be found where the lawyers are -- the Justice Department and White House counsel's office.

At the top of the Justice chart is Attorney General John Ashcroft who, as a Missouri senator during the Lewinsky scandal, often led the anti-Clinton forces. He was one of the first members of Congress to call on Clinton to resign, introduced legislation to restrict the president's use of executive privilege claims and led hearings exploring whether a president could be subject to criminal indictment while in office. (He concluded one could.)

Several scandal alumni are in line to join Ashcroft at Justice if they receive Senate confirmation. They include Chertoff, chief counsel of the Senate Whitewater committee from 1995 to 1996, and Theodore B. Olson, newly appointed U.S. solicitor general.

Olson, who as solicitor general would supervise and conduct government litigation in the U.S. Supreme Court, most recently gained celebrity as lead counsel for Bush during the post-election recount battle, successfully arguing Bush's case before the high court.

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