A defense from Reagan, an angry Stephanopoulos: the risks of prosecuting Bush and Cheney.
“I want you to know I didn’t do anything wrong,” said President Reagan, looking me directly in the eye.
The date was November 20, 1986. As is routine in the White House, there was a presidential photographer in the room silently working away. One photo from that occasion, precisely dated as is the custom, sits in front of me now. A handful of seconds earlier the photographer had captured my younger self and a few colleagues (future governors of Indiana and Mississippi Mitch Daniels and Haley Barbour among them) doing the standard picture-with-the boss routine, the boss who was President of the United States smiling and joking as he sat as his desk. Moment over, he rose, briefly leaning over his desk and neatly checking off the notation for “staff photo” that was on his schedule. Standing behind the president’s chair that separated his desk from a table holding photos of his family, caught between the American and presidential flags, several of us were physically blocked from leaving. Turning, seeing the problem, he smiled and stepped aside. As we started to move out from behind his desk it suddenly became clear that something was bothering him, and he raised his hand, indicating he wanted us to stop. He had something more to say. I stopped. His face, smiling mere moments ago, grew serious and then out it came: “I want you to know I didn’t do anything wrong.” Followed by an impromptu explanation.
Outside the Oval Office, the liberal media of the day — with no Fox News, no conservative talk radio or blogs on the Internet for balance — was in an uproar. The night before the President had held a nationally televised press conference to discuss “a secret initiative to the Islamic Republic of Iran.” What is now known to history as the “Iran-Contra” affair had just exploded. Shooting to instant fame would be a host of White House aides (prominently including a young Marine lieutenant colonel named Oliver North), members of Congress and, but of course, lawyers.
The shrieks for a “special prosecutor” (aka the “independent counsel”) began. The American left, which could not abide Ronald Reagan, wanted his scalp. More to the point, now they thought they could get it — by once again criminalizing policy differences, a course they had gotten well-used to pursuing in the first six years of the Reagan presidency. This, in the post-Watergate era, had become the weapon of choice for Democrats. And of course, threats of impeachment. It had worked with the unpopular Nixon, driving him from office even before the full House of Representatives could vote on impeachment resolutions passed in the House Judiciary Committee. So why not Reagan? Popular though he was, it was only a matter of time before an impeachment bill would be introduced in the House by Texas Democrat Henry Gonzalez. The latest Independent Counsel, an ex-federal judge (a nominal Republican) named Lawrence Walsh, was soon on the case, where, with an obsession rivaling Captain Ahab of Moby Dick, he would remain — for six years.
This memory returns as MoveOn.org, a mainstay of today’s leftwing, furiously demands of President Obama that he move ahead with prosecutions of various Bush administration officials over accusations of “torture” of captured terrorists. Obama has wavered, and the push is on to get him to go forward. Proclaims MoveOn: “So far, the architects of Bush’s torture program have not been held accountable. It’s time for Attorney General Holder to open an investigation to make sure those responsible face real consequences.” Even while the President has said no to a so-called “Truth Commission,” the congressional version of a show trial like the Iran-Contra hearings is being pushed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
All of this is enough to make a conservative weep with joy at the opportunity MoveOn and Pelosi are presenting the Obama opposition.
Let’s leave my time in the Oval Office standing next to my President-boss and move ahead in time to another young presidential aide standing in almost the identical spot. His picture is infinitely more interesting than mine because it appears, black, white, and grainy, on the cover of Time magazine in March of 1994. The aide this time was George Stephanopoulos, and the president Bill Clinton. Mr. Stephanopoulos is now the anchor of ABC’s Sunday morning news show This Week as well as the chief Washington correspondent for ABC News.
By March of 1994, the so-called Ethics in Government Act passed by Democrats in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, had been churning away for over a decade and a half. By the coincidence of the political clock, for the majority of that time (1981-1993) the White House was occupied by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. There was no coincidence that special prosecutors had been brought to life on over a dozen different occasions by Democrats. This began with an investigation of Reagan’s Secretary of Labor, Raymond Donovan, and ended with an investigation of Bush aides Janet Mullins and Margaret Tutwiler in 1992. As far as Democrats were concerned, in a state of self-righteous fury matching almost exactly that of MoveOn.org today, the Reaganites and Bushies richly deserved every last legal trauma. Of which there was plenty, as good, serious, and dedicated people were plunged into debt, publicly humiliated, threatened with jail, and so on.
But, surprise, surprise, time moved on. And the administration of Bill Clinton, in which the young George played such a critical early role, gradually awoke to the realization that two could play the game of criminalizing political differences. The reason Stephanopoulos was on the cover of Time was a story about the burgeoning Whitewater scandal involving both his boss and First Lady Hillary Clinton. Inside, it painted a dark portrait of a presidential aide on the verge of indictment, or, in Stephanopoulos’s own later, rueful words, “one step away from the slammer.”
In political terms this kind of thing is called “payback,” although certainly there was no ability to press a button and launch a Special Prosecutor on the part of any one Republican. What there was, rather, was the increasing ability of all manner of conservatives — by now talk radio had begun to gather steam, and this magazine and others were on the Clinton trail — to effectively play by the new rules of criminalizing policy differences as not-so brilliantly laid out by the left. Just as Democrats had done with Reagan and Bush, so now was the Clinton administration the target of demands for special prosecutors. To the increasing fury of the Clinton people who ran a campaign in 1992 saying they would run the most ethical White House in history, they were well on their way not just to humiliating moral equality with the dreaded, evil Nixon and Reagan, now the lawyers were — gasp! — coming after them!
Lo and behold, by 1996, the liberal media establishment was beginning to have second thoughts about the virtue of criminalizing political differences. In December of 1996, a month after Clinton had managed to defeat the lackluster Bob Dole with only 49% of the vote, the liberal bible Vanity Fair ran a lengthy story bewailing the fate of all those young and idealistic Clintonites. Titled “They Who Serve and Suffer,” the piece by writer Judy Bachrach did an amazing job of actually being fair to the Reagan-Bush folks. In particular, the focus on the last of the Republican targets, former Bush political director Janet Mullins, was startling. The terrified single mother was plunged by a special prosecutor into a public, jobless nightmare with $400,000 in legal bills — all to be told at the end that, well, sorry. She was exonerated for the charge of snooping on Bill Clinton’s passport. Oops! The government’s bad! Only a portion of her legal fees were paid back by the government.
This article should be must reading if one is in the Obama White House. It is even worth reading if one is over at MoveOn.org or MSNBC, where the Stalinesque demand for prosecution of Bush-Cheney officials is loudest.
By 1996, George Stephanopoulos was not a happy man, as he would later detail in his memoirs. The black and white photograph that led the Vanity Fair article depicts a grim-faced George standing in the shadow of the White House. No longer written up as the boy wonder prodigy-as-White House aide who reportedly had flipped the bird at the Heritage Foundation building while being driven past it during some inaugural festivity, this Stephanopoulos was a different man altogether. You might call him furious George. No longer was it those detestable Reaganites like Elliott Abrams or Ed Meese or Lyn Nofziger, Mike Deaver or Oliver North racking up all those over-the-top legal fees. No, this time it was …the unfairness of it all…George himself! And his White House friends! Already George was $70,000 in the hole on his legal fees. Maggie Williams, chief of staff to Hillary Clinton, was in for $250,000 — a cool quarter of a million. Another Hillary aide was facing a legal tab of $100,000, while Bruce Lindsey, the presidential jack-of-all trades, was at $500,000 and climbing. Said the magazine of Ms. Williams’ shock: ” ‘I mean, it never stops,’ cries Maggie Williams, who has passed two lie-detector tests. Her voice trembles.” Ms. Williams’ quote was accompanied by a photo of her tearful self wiping her eyes in front of a congressional committee microphone.
Ohhhhhhhh the humanity! The legal figures for some of the Clintonites, by the way, ran under a chart with the heading that proclaimed: “White House School for Scandal. Warning: Government Service Can be Hazardous to Your Health.” George’s lawyer, a former aide to Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill, was startlingly blunt in his assessment of the source of both his client’s legal troubles and those of the Clinton White House staff: “When the Democrats couldn’t get control of power through legitimate electoral means, we decided scandal was the way we were going to get it. And we kept pressing the scandal button and pressing the investigations and going that way. And then, lo and behold, we won the White House.” A victory won in part, says the article, by Clinton “adopting a tone of outraged morality that now seems positively haunting.”
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