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The Disestablishment

Is Counterculture Now in Charge?

July 07, 1996|Suzanne Garment | Suzanne Garment, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a resident scholar at the American Enterpriese Institute. She is the author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics" (Times Books)

WASHINGTON — People are talking about the new book by Gary Aldrich, a retired FBI agent who served in the Clinton White House. But they're talking about the wrong things--trying to figure out, for example, if Aldrich has adequate sourcing (he doesn't) for his charge that the president eluded Secret Service protection for nighttime visits to a downtown hotel. Aldrich's book is valuable chiefly as evidence that today, 30 years after Vietnam, we're fighting the same culture battles that the war left us as a legacy.

These battles had staying power because they engaged the combatants on several different levels--the wisdom of U.S. policy in Indochina, for example or whether you could march in protest on a U.S. embassy and still claim to love your country. But they were also about sex, drugs, and rock and roll, long hair and tie-dyed clothes. And these fights are unresolved.

After the 1960s, the battlefront shifted many times. Long hair became the style among young working-class men; then ponytails returned for yuppies. The sexual frontier moved from heterosexual permissiveness to feminism and gay rights. But each side in the struggle has continually redrawn its lines to assimilate the changes and preserve the underlying hatreds.

Aldrich does have a legitimate complaint against the Clintonites: They would not take the FBI's job of investigation and security seriously.

The administration appointed many highly visible senior officials before, rather than after, the FBI had investigated them. White House staffers by the scores could not make time in their busy schedules to be interviewed by the FBI so they could be cleared. The administration reacted to the consequent delays by simply making it easier for staffers to keep using temporary passes.

Problems that used to disqualify a job candidate were redefined as none of anyone's business. Political appointees displayed their contempt for the bureau's mission and culture.

But Aldrich has another complaint: He does not like the Clinton staffers' style, and he thinks this style is inseparable from the danger the Clintonites pose to the presidency. He argues his case like the law enforcement official he was--sizing up his investigative subjects by everything from the way they treat the help to their fashion sense.

Clinton staffers, Aldrich tells us, had no respect for the White House premises. They conducted their business out of half-unpacked cardboard cartons. They spilled coffee and didn't clean it up.

They exhibited disrespect in their personal appearance as well. People showed up in T-shirts and torn, dirty jeans. The chief of staff was directed to remind everyone to wear underwear.

The Clinton people also had a problem with gender, Aldrich says. According to his book, the women looked tougher than the men. Men wore ponytails and earrings and held hands. There were stories of same-sex lovemaking on an office desk.

And, there was drug use--recent use of all sorts of stuff by all manner of Clinton appointees.

Aldrich thinks these traits are of a piece with other failings of the Clinton people. Some passed bad checks at the gift shop run for the benefit of families of Secret Service agents killed or injured in the line of duty. While Bush staffers made too many personal long-distance phone calls, Clinton staffers stole laptop computers.

Aldrich sees the problems the public has heard about, like the Travel Office scandal and Vincent W. Foster Jr.'s suicide, as just the most visible pieces of the cancer growing on the presidency.

Yet Aldrich's complaint is like, well, an FBI report--without a solid evaluation of sources or a sense of what is important and what is not. He thinks it's a sign of disrespect that presidential aide David Watkins did not don a jacket when first meeting him. He goes on about Hillary Rodham Clinton's terrible taste in Christmas decorations--he prefers Barbara Bush's needlepoint theme. He returns again and again to the earrings and jeans.

Aldrich also takes his speculations into a land where those who rely on factual evidence cannot follow. He says that when Vice President Al Gore would no longer let an FBI agent use an office he had occupied, the reason was that Gore and his wife were fans of the Grateful Dead, who were part of the drug culture. Aldrich even finds it suspicious that attorney Robert B. Fiske Jr., one of those who recommended Louis J. Freeh for the post of FBI director, later became the special counsel investigating Whitewater.

And from time to time, Aldrich lets slip an unattractive judgment. He should have chosen a word other than the classic "pushy" to describe White House Counsel Bernard W. Nussbaum. He shouldn't say dismissively, as he does, of young Clinton staffers, "They came from Pizza Hut and Domino's and Joe's Bar and Grill, and off campaign airplanes where they had been flight attendants." This suggests a certain disregard for the democratic process.

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