The Washington Post was angry.
Its reporters and editors believed they had been stonewalled by the 1992 Bill Clinton Presidential campaign.
And now that he had been elected President, they wanted access to a treasury of documents relating to potential irregularities in Whitewater and a gubernatorial campaign.
David Gergen, a conservative adviser to Republican Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, had been hired by Clinton in 1993 to provide a counterbalancing perspective to his liberal team members.
Gergen had served in the Nixon White House during Watergate. He knew firsthand the political dangers of stonewalling–or merely appearing to stonewall.
So he advised Clinton: Give the Post the documents. Yes, it will be temporarily embarrassing. But in a little while the bad stories will blow over and you can get on with the job.
If you don’t hand over the documents, you’ll look like you’re hiding something. The press will raise a stink. The Republicans will demand a Special Prosecutor. And there will be no end to it.
Clinton agreed with Gergen. 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.
Hillary never did. Finally, two weeks after the canceled December 10 meeting with the Clintons, Gergen got the news he had been dreading: Bruce Lindsay, Clinton’s trusted adviser, would deliver a one-paragraph letter to the Post, essentially saying; “Screw you.”
Events quickly unfolded exactly as Gergen had predicted:
- The Post’s executive editor, Leonard Downie, called the White House: “Nothing personal, but we’re going to pursue this story relentlessly.”
- The New York Times and Newsweek–among other news outlets–joined the journalistic investigation.
- Coverage of Whitewater intensified.
- Republicans began demanding that Attorney General Janet Reno appoint an independent counsel.
- On January 20, 1994–exactly a year after Clinton took the oath as President–Edward Fiske, a former federal prosecutor, was named independent counsel.
- In August, Fiske was dismissed by a Federal judge who considered him too liberal and replaced with Kenneth Starr, a former solicitor general and federal appeals court judge.
- Starr unearthed Clinton’s salacious affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, which culminated in an unsuccessful Republican impeachment attempt in 1998.
- Starr resigned in 1999, and was replaced by Robert W. Ray.
- The investigation continued until 2002, but no criminal charges were ever filed against either Clinton.
In his 2001 book, Eyewitness to Power, Gergen summarizes the meaning of this episode:
If the Clintons had turned over the Whitewater documents to the Washington Post in December 1993, their history–and that of the United States–would have been entirely different.
Disclosure would have brought embarrassing revelations–such as Hillary’s investment in commodity futures.
“But we know today that nothing in those documents constituted a case for criminal prosecution of either one of the Clintons in their Whitewater land dealings…
“Edward Fiske and Kenneth Starr would never have arrived on the scene, we might never have heard of Monica Lewinsky (who had nothing to do with the original Whitewater matter) and there would have been no impeachment.
“The country would have been spared that travail, and the President himself could have had a highly productive second term.”
Gergen blames President Clinton rather than Hillary for refusing to disclose the documents. Voters elected him–not her–to run the government. He–not she–ultimately bears the responsibility.
Still, his comments about Hillary are telling, considering:
- That she is likely to win election to the White House this November; and
- That she continues to reflexively stonewall instead of opt for transparency when facing questions.
As Gergen puts it: “She should have said yes [to disclosure] from the beginning, accepting short-term embarrassment in exchange for long-term protection of both herself and her husband.
“She listened too easily to the lawyers and to her own instincts as a litigator, instincts that told her never to give an inch to the other side. Whitewater was always more a political than a legal problem.”
The same might be said of her lingering credibility problem with the use of a private email server as Secretary of State.
Both of her predecessors, Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice, used private servers, and neither has been subjected to Republican inquisition.
She could have easily avoided the turmoil that has dogged her for years by simply admitting at the outset: “Yes, I used a private server–just like my two Republican predecessors did. Everyone knows government servers are compromised.”
Instead, she fell back on Nixonian stonewalling tactics–which proved fatal to Richard Nixon and almost fatal to her husband.
This is, in short, a woman who has learned nothing from the past–her own nor that of her husband.
It’s a safe bet that as President Hillary Clinton will continue to stonewall over matters whose disclosure is embarrassing only in the short-term–thus jeopardizing her tenure as Chief Executive.