"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."
Because the defeated Republicans, now schooled in painful detail in just how to make anything from foreign policy decisions (the Iran initiative) to having too much ego and too much Scotch (Deaver) into a federal case did just that with the new Clinton administration. One Clinton moment after another was turned, literally, into a federal case, leaving the president, according to Vanity Fair, "bitter and angry." Notably, all of these bitter complaints from the Clinton White House came just over a year before the Mother of All Scandals would almost swamp the Clinton White House entirely -- making famous two more names in particular: Monica Lewinsky and Special Prosecutor Ken Starr.
By 1999, the criminalizing of policy differences had taken a serious toll on Washington. So too had other pieces of left-wing dogma taken a serious hit. The idea that "women tell the truth" about sexual harassment, gospel when the accuser was polished lawyer Anita Hill pointing a finger at a black conservative Supreme Court nominee named Clarence Thomas, had morphed into the memorable assertion from Clinton lieutenant James Carville that "If you drag a hundred dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you'll find." This, of course, a reference to the un-polished Ms. Paula Jones of the Arkansas twang.
The idea that various Republican targets of special prosecutors were supposed to sit still and watch quietly as their actions while in government were now to be turned into secretive, paranoid designs making them a cross between Al Capone, Hitler, and Machiavelli vanished. Replaced with a full-scale frontal assault by Democrats was on Ken Starr.
There is a cautionary tale for Obama and his team in all of this. Particularly for the man who is mentioned in passing in the Vanity Fair article -- then-Clinton aide Rahm Emanuel, now Obama's chief staff. Alas for presidents and their staffs, their successors quite frequently can and do disagree with their predecessor's decisions. So too can the opposition party in Congress and the now vibrant conservative media. In this case, finding lawyers who proclaim Bush and Cheney and their staffs and administration as guilty of breaking the law is as easy as it will be for Obama s successor and his or her staff to do the same with the Obama team.
How will this work? Here are but three examples in an Obama administration barely 100 days old.
A mere three days into his term the new president ordered drone attacks inside Pakistan on suspected al-Qaeda terrorists. Twenty-two people were killed. Not all were believed to be terrorists. According to locals, women and at least three children were killed. On top of this, all manner of once "Top Secret" documents on prisoner interrogation techniques have abruptly been dropped into the public domain thanks to the decision of Obama administration lawyers. Meanwhile, over in the House, Speaker Pelosi has gotten herself trapped in her own demands for a "Truth Commission" all the while steadfastly issuing murky statements of the what-did-she-know-and-when-did-she-know-it variety when it came to intelligence briefings on torture.
In other words, this very green President of the United States, without a lick of military experience, just bombed a country (Pakistan) with which the U.S. is not at war. Nor did he request a declaration of war. On top of which innocent women and children are now dead. If we are to run with the doctrine according to MoveOn.org this, ladies and gentleman, is what the left loves to label a "war crime."
Second, the release of "Top Secret" documents can easily be reviewed by a new and different batch of lawyers and ruled to be a deliberate breach of the Espionage Act of 1917. This statute plainly states that a government official who has information "relating to the national defense and has reason to believe it could be used to harm the United States and willfully transmits the information to an unauthorized recipient'' -- meaning, in the case of the Obama officials, the media -- is open to prosecution and a ten-year prison sentence.
As for Speaker Pelosi, a release of both the briefings she received on torture during her tenure as a member of the House Intelligence Committee, plus -- importantly -- the minutes of what was said at those briefings, can immediately open a discussion as to whether the Speaker in any way lied or violated House rules. Before Republicans pushed back at Clinton, it is now forgotten, one young GOP Congressman named Newt Gingrich forced the Democrats on the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct to face up to their scorching rhetoric on ethics in the Reagan era. With gritted teeth, the Committee reluctantly accused then-House Speaker Jim Wright of violating House rules some 69 times -- forcing his resignation.
Make no mistake. The goal of leveling these kind of accusations against Obama and Pelosi, as was the goal when Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Jim Wright and Bill Clinton were the targets (and, briefly, towards the end of his term, Jimmy Carter), is not necessarily to remove Obama or Pelosi from office. No, the goal, as was laid out back in 1996 by furious George's lawyer, is something else entirely.
The goal, as it now is with the MoveOn targeting of the Bush and Cheney officials and the ex-president and vice president themselves, is to legally harass, to humiliate, to intimidate, to destroy reputations and financially ruin the targets. At risk in the Obama White House as a result of decisions already made and executed are not only the well-known players like chief of staff Emanuel. Infected in these kinds of investigations would be every staff member with even the briefest of contact with the issue at hand. This would include, as it did in the past, not only those in the chief of staff's office but the vice president's office, the National Security Council, the Political Affairs office, the First Lady's office and anyone anywhere in the bureaucracy outside the White House -- CIA, State, the Pentagon, and so on.
Typical of the latter target in the Clinton era was 28-year-old Joshua Steiner, the chief of staff to Secretary of the Treasury Lloyd Bentsen. Young Mr. Steiner, a friend of George Stephanopoulos, made the mistake of keeping a diary in which he faithfully noted a phone conversation he had with a literally furious George over the appointment of a well-known Clinton critic, an ex-GOP U.S. Attorney, to the Resolution Trust Corporation. Cost to Mr. Steiner? As of December, 1996, his legal bills were up to $100,000 and the meter was still running. He became famous in Time magazine as "the dumb son of a bitch (who) kept a diary." And that lovely quote was from a Clinton colleague -- anonymous of course.
Do I recommend any of this? Of course not. This is almost obscene in its disregard for the Constitution and simple human decency.
We have elections to decide these things. Presidents and members of their administration have made mistakes, wrong calls or highly debatable decisions since George Washington personally decided to lead troops to crush the Whiskey Rebellion. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, FDR was at the helm when Pearl Harbor was attacked, Truman dropped not one but two atomic bombs on Japanese civilians, JFK plotted to kill Castro using the CIA when he wasn't (ineptly) agreeing to an invasion. All of these, and many, many more presidential decisions, if pursued with the wild-eyed legal zealotry of MoveOn.org, would have ruined just about every administration in American history. It's just too easy to do.
George Stephanopoulos had some advice the Obama team might consider worthwhile. When asked, in that Vanity Fair article, what he would say to future staffs of future administrations, he replied: "I would advise anyone [who joins the White House staff] to make sure you have a lawyer on retainer from the day you walk in."
So if in fact this is where the Obama administration is going to let itself be pushed by the zealots at MoveOn or MSNBC or anywhere else, then perhaps they should start taking up furious George on his hard-earned wisdom. The Obama administration will be on a certain course to the day when a young Obama staffer will be standing in the Oval Office with his president only to hear Barack Obama say, as Ronald Reagan did to me: "I want you to know I've done nothing wrong."
If not only George W. Bush and Dick Cheney but their Cabinet, their staff, and -- perhaps most insultingly -- the members of the CIA who have taken extraordinary risks to keep this country safe since 9/11 are now going to be dragged through show trials worthy of a banana republic, then, three words:
Bring it on.
Or, as Ronald Reagan once quoted his friend Clint Eastwood:
"Go ahead. Make my day."
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