Let’s just assume — for the sake of argument — that the West Wing Worldview is correct. The cast of do-gooders and secular saints inhabiting the White House are just trying to do the right thing in the face of terrible odds. Recall, if you will, that in NBC’s West Wing, whenever staffers sleep with high-priced hookers; when senior aides reap windfall profits from their minimal investments in the companies they regulate; when they lie under oath, hide documents and conceal the truth; it’s all just a big misunderstanding.
These totally human mistakes are utterly forgivable when contrasted with the efforts of the evil, mean, and stupid conservatives who want to ruin everything for everybody. It’s not easy for these spunky staffers, but hell, what’s a brilliant liberal with important hair supposed to do?
All of these things and so much more, were all honest mistakes by a well-intentioned administration. No criminal intent, no venal motives or intentions. Why exactly should that let them off the hook? If you get an F on a test, it shouldn’t be an A if you studied really hard. If you train and play fair, you can still be a terrible athlete. And even if the Clintons aren’t evil and venal in everything they do, that doesn’t mean he’s done his job well. Ever since the announcement that Robert Ray, Ken Starr’s replacement, has found nothing prosecutable in the White House’s handling of the FBI files, the pundits have been going nuts with the “so, what was the big deal?” arguments. I’ve been getting e-mails from liberals rubbing it in: “See, they didn’t do anything wrong. When are you going to apologize?”
I will apologize the day Bill Clinton explains the meaning of “is” in less than three tries. But that’s not the point. The point is that even if this administration did everything for the “right” reasons, that doesn’t mean they didn’t do anything wrong. Why is it so lost on people that breaking the criminal law is not supposed to be the high bar of political behavior. Besides, with this administration you cannot even say, in most cases, “they didn’t break the law.”. The best you can come up with most of the time is, “they can’t be prosecuted for it.”
Just take the latest silliness with the White House e-mail. Hundreds of thousands of e-mails were — probably — lost by accident. These emails contain. . . who knows what? Presumably everything from “where do you want to go to lunch?” missives to “is that press release done yet?” to “I don’t think that Lewinsky chick is wearing any underwear today.”
But they were subpoenaed by the Congress of the United States, the first branch of government, and by the independent counsel. It seems pretty clear that the White House knew it wasn’t complying fully at the time. And rather than say, “hey, there’s this problem; we’ve lost a lot of e-mail, but here’s what we’ve got so far,” they apparently told another inconvenient female employee that she would lose her job and go to jail if she spilled the beans.
Again, let’s assume there’s no criminal intent in any of this — which is like assuming you could get a six-foot hoagie past Al Sharpton without coming up three feet short. Why isn’t anyone getting fired? John Sununu wasn’t criminally prosecuted when he borrowed the White House helicopter to check out stamp shows (or something equally super-sexy) but he was canned. See the difference? This White House seems to think that the only reason you fire somebody is if they’re dragged off in cuffs, and even then you get the sense they’ll keep the lights on for you.
And even if this White House lives up to the West Wing standard and it was all totally unselfish, why doesn’t anyone get fired simply for being politically incompetent?
Remember how during the 1980s, the President’s management style was perceived to be symbolic of his governing philosophy?
Here’s how CBS reporter Terence Smith put it in a New York Times op-ed:
“… Ronald Reagan presided over a meltdown of the federal government during the last eight years. Fundamental management was abandoned in favor of rhetoric and imagery. A cynical disregard for the art of government led to wide-scale abuse. Only now are we coming to realize the cost of Mr. Reagan’s laissez-faire: the crisis in the savings and loan industry, the scandal in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the deterioration of the nation’s nuclear weapons facilities, the dangerous state of the air traffic control system — not to mention the staggering deficit.”
Indeed, Reagan’s alleged “neglect” of his day-to-day duties was denounced as of a piece with his “neglect” of the poor, the gay, the black, the short, the tall, the left-handed, the guy who can’t find his remote control in the cushions of the couch, and any other victim du jour. In an utterly typical editorial by the New York Times, in this case about the Iran-Contra affair, the Times wrote that Reagan’s “personal management style in this case means disastrous lack of attention, lack of supervision, lack of concern — lack of leadership.”
If this space allowed for footnotes I would probably make a colossal mess, but in this case I would point out the fact that Reagan invited the investigation of his administration, waiving all attorney-client and executive privileges (unlike Clinton who not only criminally abused existing ones but minted new privileges as well). But beyond the footnote, why can’t we hold Clinton and Gore to that simple standard? They may not be criminals, but they have managed a White House which time and again does things that often appear criminal and at least appear stupid and/or arrogant.
THE ARROGANCE CONTINUES
Remember the early days of the Clinton administration? Remember when the White House crawled with youngun’s who believed that their White House badges meant that they would ascend to heaven at the time of the rapture — if they didn’t believe they were already there. Remember when some gum-snapping debutante — whose idea of a hunger strike was drinking tap water and store-bought sushi — snubbed a two-star general by telling him that she didn’t deal with people from the military?
For a while, that event symbolized the arrogance of the Clinton administration. Not only did they not care how things were done before they arrived, they didn’t think the people already here deserved any respect.
Well, Al Gore, who is trying to run on all of Clinton’s strengths and none of his weaknesses, has a similar situation on his hands. Earlier this month a scheduler for the Gore campaign was pulled over for driving under the influence of alcohol. When the police officer approached the car the driver was “laughing uncontrollably,” according to the police report. She said that she was doing 85 MPH in a 40 MPH zone because her friend in the passenger seat was pregnant. The officer reported that she didn’t appear pregnant.
The scheduler grew angry and yelled at the police officer, “I am on the Gore 2000 campaign, and I’m going to call the United States district attorney right now.” The arresting officer said this was intended as a threat.
Kathleen Begala told The Tennessean that the young lady has not been fired. “I want to say it took place on her own time,” says Begala.
Here we go again. Who cares that it was on her own time? This is just another version of Clintonian spin — anything personal is personal and therefore beyond the scope of judgement or scrutiny.
Whether or not she is convicted for the DUI, the Gore campaign’s choice is pretty clear. Either it’s okay with them if their staff act like they are above the law, or they don’t. If they don’t care, then it really will be “four more years” — if Gore wins.
MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE RANCH…
Today we have launched the new and exciting National Review Online II: The Wrath of the Webmaster!
Please look around, but if you break it, you bought it. Regardless, we will be tweaking for several days. Feel free to root around like a dinner guest checking out the strange pills in the host’s medicine cabinet.