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The Blood Sport of Confirmation Hearings

March 23, 1997|Robert G. Beckel | Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, served as campaign manager for Walter F. Mondale in 1984

WASHINGTON — Vincent W. Foster Jr. was right. In Washington, destroying public figures is indeed becoming a blood sport. The latest victim is W. Anthony Lake, President Bill Clinton's first choice to head the Central Intelligence Agency, who withdrew his name from consideration on Monday after refusing to be subjected to any more attacks on his character. The Republicans got his scalp--and hunting season isn't over yet. But lest you think I am unloading only on Republicans for this type of wretched spectacle, my beloved Democrats have done their share of hunting over the years. Both sides have been involved in equal-opportunity slander.

Lake is only the latest in a long line of dedicated public servants who have gotten caught in the relatively new Washington game of "gotcha." I rarely agreed with Judge Robert H. Bork or former Sen. John Tower, but their ordeals at the hands of the Democrats were as disgraceful as Lake's. All these men and countless others didn't deserve the public humiliation and, to borrow a phrase from Clarence Thomas, the "high-tech lynching" they received at the hands of petty, self-righteous politicians.

There was a time in Washington when a candidate who required Senate confirmation was judged on his or her qualifications for the job. Sure, past questionable behavior was a factor, but in recent years the definition of questionable behavior has undergone a frightening change.

In Tower's case, his drinking history became the prime focus of the mob that didn't want to see him become secretary of defense. If drinking had been a standard of qualification for high office, many otherwise qualified people would never have been confirmed. What is more galling is some of the very senators who found fault with Tower's past drinking habits couldn't have passed a Breathalyzer test to take their seats during his confirmation hearings. Should a practicing alcoholic be secretary of defense? No, but in Tower's case, there was evidence he had cleaned up his act.

As for Lake, the process was even more egregious. This good man, who had served his country as far back as the Nixon administration, was accused of everything from lying to Congress to questionable loyalty. What a joke. The chairman and chief hatchet man of the committee that investigated Lake was Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, a former Democrat turned Republican when the Southern winds blew conservative. Where I come from, there's a word for people like Shelby: "turncoat."

Then there was the issue of Lake not telling the GOP-controlled Congress about Iranian arms shipments to Bosnian Muslims during the war. If Iranian arms shipments are sins, then Oliver L. North should be in jail and not on a puny radio show--not to mention several other Reagan operatives who escaped punishment using problematic legal precedents for a defense.

There was the charge that Lake didn't know or didn't inform the president about alleged attempts by the Chinese government to influence U.S. congressional elections. Should he have known? Probably, but the head of the National Security Council in the White House is the least likely person to expect domestic campaign money to be a regular issue. So it's no wonder that a process was not in place to deal with campaign funding. Hardly a reason to deny him confirmation.

But while we're on the subject of campaign contributions, how about all those senators, including Shelby, explaining fund-raisers that senators continue to hold, inviting lobbyists who lobby their committees, lobbyists who bring cash and talk about legislation affecting their industries?

For Lake to be attacked on campaign money by GOP senators and commentators like John McLaughlin, William Safire and my pal Patrick J. Buchanan, all of whom worked for and defended Richard M. Nixon, the most corrupt president in our nation's history, would be laughable, if it weren't so sad and disgusting.

How this "gotcha" madness became an integral part of confirmation hearings can, in part, be traced to the Bork story. In fact, many Republicans, in the aftermath of Bork's rejection as an associate justice of the Supreme Court, began to warn that when the Democrats' turn came to confirm their candidates for high positions, they were going to get "Borked." In Lake's case, as with Bobby Ray Inman, C. Lani Guinier and others, Republicans delivered on their threat.

Lest we absolve the Clinton administration in all this, let's remember that standing behind their nominees when problems surface has never been a strong suit--cut and run would be a better description of this White House's past performance. Despite Clinton's promise to fight for Lake if it "took a year," the record does not suggest such firmness is standard fare for this administration.

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