bureaucracybusters

SECRECY PAST IS SECRECY PROLOGUE: PART ONE (OF TWO)

In Bureaucracy, History, Law, Politics on August 8, 2016 at 10:30 am

“History can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”

So wrote the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard.  And with history–in the form of a second Clinton Presidency–about to repeat itself, useful lessons may be found by studying the first one.

Since her debut as a potential First Lady in 1992, Hillary Clinton has aroused strong passions–for and against.

David Gergen is one former staffer who has viewed her up close and yet offers a balanced perspective of her strengths and weaknesses.

He did so in his 2001 book, Eyewitness to Power, in which he chronicled his experiences as an adviser to Republican Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan–and a Democratic one: Bill Clinton.

In 1993, then a conservative political commentator, Gergen returned to the White House. 

The liberal Clinton, sensitive to criticism on the Right, wanted Gergen’s advice on how to defuse it.

David Gergen World Economic Forum 2013.jpg

David Gergen

In December, 1993, Gergen got a call from Bob Kaiser, the managing editor of the Washington Post: “We’re getting the runaround over there on Whitewater and I want you to know about it.”

“Whitewater” encompassed the Arkansas real estate investments of Bill and Hillary Clinton and their associates, Jim and Susan McDougal in the Whitewater Development Corporation, a failed business venture in the 1970s and 1980s. 

A Post reporter had sent a letter to Bruce Lindsay, a trusted Clinton adviser, raising questions about the finances of the Clintons in the years before they came to Washington.

Two weeks had passed, and there had been no reply.  

Gergen assured Kaiser that this was the first time he had heard about the letter: “I’ll look into it and get back to you.”

Gergen and Kaiser shared a Watergate past–Gergen had worked in the Nixon White House, Kaiser at the Washington Post, whose reporting had ultimately brought Nixon down.

Both men, Gergen later wrote, “remembered how destructive the stonewalling of those days had been.” And Gergen respected Kaiser, believing him “fair but tough–and, if misled, very tough.”   

Gergen immediately consulted with Thomas F. “Mack” McLarty, Clinton’s White House Chief of Staff. He advised McLarty that a trio of White House officials should visit the Post and find out what the reporters wanted.

McLarty agreed.  

When the White House officials arrived at the Post, they were met by a chorus of hostile reporters.  

They felt they had been stonewalled throughout the 1992 Presidential race. And now they wanted access to a treasury of documents relating to potential irregularities in Whitewater and a gubernatorial campaign.

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The Washington Post

Gergen and Mark Gearan, the White House director of communications, agreed that the best course was to give the Post all the documents it was requesting.  

The next day, Gergen laid out his case to Chief of Staff McLarty:

The Post should be allowed to view the documents and report on them. Then the papers should be made available to the entire White House press corps.  

Yes, said Gergen, a lot of negative stories would probably result. But if Watergate had taught any lesson, it was that it was better to admit mistakes and not try to hide them. Stonewalling only brought on criminal investigations–and potential criminal charges.  

McLarty agreed to set up a meeting with President Clinton where Gergen and Gearan could make their case.

On December 10, Gergen and Gearan were scheduled to meet with President Clinton, his wife, and possibly their lawyers.  

But when the appointed hour arrived, they found that the meeting had been scrubbed.

The Clintons had had their lawyers come in early for a private discussion of the documents, had heard their arguments, and had decided not to discuss anything. They didn’t even want to hear a case for disclosure.

Gergen was furious. He had been hired months earlier with the promise of full access to the President. And now he insisted on it.  

McLarty arranged for him to see Clinton the next morning. 

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Bill Clinton

Gergen laid out three reasons why the Post should be given the documents it wanted.  

First, he believed the paper had tried to be fair in its coverage of the Clintons.  

Second, Watergate proved that it was politically lethal to be accused of a cover-up.

And, third, having won international renown with Watergate, the Post would never back down on Whitewater.

Gergen warned that the Post “would sic a big team of investigative reporters on the White House” and that would lead other news organizations to follow.  

“I agree with you,” said Clinton. “I think we should turn over all of the documents.”  

But there was a catch: He didn’t feel he could make the decision alone. Hillary had been a partner in the Whitewater land transactions.  

“You’ll have to speak to Hillary and get her agreement,” he told Gergen. “If she agrees, we’ll do it.”  

Gergen promised to see her.  

Two days later, Gergen called Hillary Clinton’s office and asked for an appointment.

“We’ll get back to you,” her secretary promised.

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