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Eluding Scandal : Clinton: Did You Say 'Cover-up'?

December 17, 1995|Suzanne Garment | Suzanne Garment, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics" (Times)

WASHINGTON — U.S. troops have set down on the frozen moonscape of Bosnia; they are in great danger--along with the administration that sent them there. Whitewater has finally reached the rapids: President Bill Clinton's lawyers have used the dread term "executive privilege," raising the specter of a Nixon-style cover-up. In an analogue to the Perils of Pauline, the Clinton presidency, which has careened from disappointment to embarrassment to crisis and back, is beset by yet another set of potential disasters. So why is this man smiling? Because his approval ratings are way up, that's why. Can we expect him to emerge from the current storms with the same smile on his face? That's another story.

Politically speaking, the president has earned his increased popularity. In the not-yet-expired budget crisis, he's been extremely skillful at playing the hand he was dealt.

It was not a great hand: He had to defend federal expenditures against congressional Republicans' balanced-budget fervor and today's general anti-government mood. But he properly identified the GOP's chief rhetorical weaknesses--the attempts to slow Medicare spending, shrink the welfare entitlement and deliver tax cuts--and made them his main targets. In the process, he did more than the usual violence to budgetary facts; but he managed to appeal to self-interest, compassion and class resentment all at once.

You would have to bet that, from now to the 1996 election, Clinton will keep doing a skillful job of triangulating and otherwise figuring out the electoral calculus of domestic political issues.

It is considerably less certain that he can stay afloat in another great national political arena: scandal politics. The guideposts of recent history tell us that the Whitewater scandal has entered a new, more dangerous stage for the administration.

The obscurity of some Whitewater charges--who put what in which account, what regulator made which decision--has kept the scandal in the category of political esoterica. Also, the general charge in Whitewater--that the Clintons' illegally enriched themselves--does not strike a ready public chord. These two have not made themselves rich during their public careers. Certainly, the amounts of money cited in Whitewater are too small to have done the job.

But now Whitewater vibrates with the mother of all scandal charges: cover-up.

Margaret A. Williams and Susan P. Thomases, respectively, Hillary Rodham Clinton's chief of staff and her friend, have done a dismal job of explaining to a Senate investigating committee all their visits and phone calls just after the death of Deputy White House Counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr. By itself, this embarrassment is not fatal: A congressional committee can humiliate a witness all it wants over inconsistencies, but this ritual is a far cry from proving perjury or obstruction of justice.

At the same time, though, a dangerous conflict is brewing: A former Clinton White House lawyer, responding to a Senate subpoena, has refused to hand over notes of a meeting he attended with the Clintons' personal lawyers on the subject of a criminal investigation in which the Clinton names were mentioned.

The White House, to avoid making a claim of "executive privilege"--a term made synonymous with "cover-up" by Watergate--instead claimed "lawyer-client privilege" as the reason for its refusal. But since some lawyers at the meeting were the government's attorneys, not the Clintons', this claim is not what you would call a sure legal winner.

Administration thinkers implicitly recognized this problem: In making their claim of lawyer-client privilege, they said, as a kind of backup, that they thought executive privilege also applied--though they weren't going to claim it. In other words, the administration did not use the dread term--but the signal has been sent. As William Safire succinctly put the general reaction, "Something is under that Whitewater rock." The administration is courting major scandal furor, and its lawyers' compromise proposal--that they turn over the notes, but with long strings attached--did not bring the Senate's temperature down.

And yet. We've been living with Whitewater for so long that it would take a true bombshell to break through the general sense that we already know how important it is, and this bomb may not explode before the year 2000. For example, by talking about both lawyer-client privilege and executive privilege, the administration delivered a warning. It said, "Whether we're right or wrong, by the time we finish litigating the lawyer-client issues plus the executive-privilege issues, not even counting the separation-of-powers issues, not one American in 10,000 will care about the outcome." It's sort of like consecutive life sentences.

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