When Presidents Violate the Public Trust
Nixon shattered the rule of law, but Bill Clinton subjected himself to national-security blackmail.

President Bill Clinton in the Oval Office, June 2000 (Mark Wilson/Hulton/Getty Images)


John Fund

Forty years ago tomorrow, on August 9, 1974, Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace. He also set off a mini-industry in the media, which for decades has been obsessed with Watergate.

John Dean, a Nixon co-conspirator who moved to the left after his time in prison, wrote a book trashing the Bush years that he entitled “Worse than Watergate.” As for Nixon, a new HBO documentary about Nixon “takes a fresh look at the Nixon tapes to make the case that the already vilified 37th president was not as bad as you may think — he was worse,” ABC News Radio reported. Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus concluded this week that four decades “after he slunk out of office, Richard M. Nixon retains the capacity to astonish and disgust.”

Nixon was in some ways sui generis in his contempt for the rule of law. But it is fascinating to see that while Nixon’s stock continues to shrink, the other president who drove the country toward impeachment continues to see his image burnished by historians. I’m talking about Bill Clinton, who is already deep into his new role as strategist for a planned Clinton-family return to the White House after a 16-year absence.

In his own way, Clinton was as reckless in office as Nixon was malevolent. Pre–Monica Lewinsky, he was engulfed in scandal after scandal ranging from Travel Office firings to the improper transfer to the White House of FBI files on leading Republicans. In January 1998, on the morning the Lewinsky scandal broke, President Clinton had to confess to Colonel Robert Patterson, his senior military aide, that he had lost the nuclear codes he was supposed to carry “and couldn’t recall how long the codes had been missing.” Patterson wrote in his memoir Dereliction of Duty that he was “appalled.” We now know that Clinton’s personal life frequently distracted him from his duties, and a new book by Daniel Halper of The Weekly Standard, Clinton, Inc.: The Audacious Rebuilding of a Political Machine, makes the case that President Clinton’s behavior also made him a target of international blackmail and threatened national security.

Whether he was agreeing to talk with the terminally insecure Lewinsky on a moment’s notice or was spending time to conduct extensive job searches for her, President Clinton did a great deal to keep Lewinsky quiet. Nonetheless, she ended up discussing her affair with eleven people. One of those was Linda Tripp, a Pentagon official who recorded Lewinsky’s accounts of the affair. But what if Tripp or someone else had taken those tapes to Chinese or Iranian agents instead of to Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor?

In fact, Clinton realized the security risk their relationship represented. The Starr Report’s account, released in September 1998 and not disputed, reveals that Clinton told Lewinsky “he suspected that a foreign embassy was tapping his telephones, and he proposed cover stories” if they were ever questioned about their relationship. The president and Lewinsky had phone sex ten to 15 times, so Clinton told Lewinsky that, if asked, she should say “they knew their calls were being monitored all along, and the phone sex was just a put-on.”

Right. This laughable “explanation” wouldn’t have helped much if a hostile regime had intercepted the explicit calls. And they may well have.

In his new book, Halper reports evidence that the Israelis and also the British and Russians had “scooped up” the microwaves off the top of the White House and taped Clinton’s phone-sex conversations with Monica — and perhaps other women. In 2000, Insight magazine reported that its investigation found that the Israeli security service had “penetrated four White House telephone lines and was able to relay real-time conversations on those lines from a remote site outside the White House directly to Israel for listening and recording.” A spokesman for the Israeli Embassy labeled the charge “outrageous.”

But if the phone intercepts did exist, they might well have played a role in not-so-subtle pressure on Clinton. According to a summary of his book in Britain’s Daily Mail, Halper describes a moment when Clinton’s reckless behavior with Monica affected international relations:  

At a meeting held in October 1998 near Wye River, Maryland, Prime Minister Netanyahu pulled Clinton aside and revealed that the Israelis had listened to Clinton [and] Monica’s sex talk, and assured the President that they “threw away the tapes.” But the apparent quid pro quo was that Clinton would arrange for the release of Jonathan Pollard, who was convicted of spying for Israelis and a cause célèbre for the country.

According to a CIA source, “a stricken Clinton appeared to buckle,” Halper wrote.

The New York Times reported that Netanyahu and Clinton had indeed discussed Pollard’s release at Wye and that the two discussed something that opened up a chance for Pollard’s release. A White House spokesman told a reporter for the Times simply that Clinton was “newly impressed by the force of Mr. Netanyahu’s arguments.” In the end, CIA Director George Tenet threatened to resign on the spot if Pollard was released, and Clinton thought better of the idea.

President Clinton and his aides were well aware of the danger inherent in his relationship with the immature Lewinsky. According to the Starr Report, after he ended the relationship, she wrote him a “Dear Sir” letter in which she threatened to tell others about the relationship unless she was relocated back to the White House. The next day, Clinton hauled her in and yelled at her, saying, “It’s illegal to threaten the president.” In her testimony, Ms. Lewinsky acknowledged the threat but said she hadn’t committed a federal crime: “It was a threat to him as a man. . . . It was irrelevant, the fact that he was president.”

But after Lewinsky’s threat, Clinton acted in his capacity as president to ask his chief of staff Erskine Bowles and other aides to find Lewinsky a job. It soon became clear that it couldn’t be just any job. Lewinsky told Linda Tripp that the president owed her something special: “I don’t want to have to work for this position. I just want it to be given to me.”

Lewinsky eventually got a Pentagon job, complete with a security clearance.

But when, in January 1998, the Monica Lewinsky story broke on the Drudge Report despite Clinton’s efforts to hide the affair, presidential aides went even further. On February 8, former Clinton White House spokesman George Stephanopoulos appeared on ABC’s This Week to warn that White House aides were preparing a new defense in the Lewinsky scandal. “[It’s] what I’ll call the Ellen Rometsch strategy,” he said.

“She was a girlfriend of John F. Kennedy’s who also happened to be an East German spy. And Robert Kennedy was charged with getting her out of the country and also getting John Edgar Hoover to go to the Congress and say, Don’t investigate this, because if you do, we’re going to open up everybody’s closets.”

When questioned about this strategy, Stephanopoulos (who now hosts the same This Week ABC News show on which he was a guest in 1998) became deadly serious: “The President said he would never resign. And I think some around him are willing to take everybody down with him.” What damage could that have done to the country?

Some presidential historians insist that private behavior shouldn’t affect our judgment of those who sit in the Oval Office. “We expect our husbands to be faithful and our friends to have certain levels of fidelity to us,” said historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. “We expect our leader to give us good leadership, but that’s a different thing.”

Perhaps so, and as we mark the anniversary of Richard Nixon’s resignation we should take careful note of how much damage he did to our government and public trust. But presidents can be reckless and dangerous in different ways, and we shouldn’t ignore personal behavior when it places high officials or those close to power at risk of blackmail or even charges of rank hypocrisy.

Bill Clinton won’t ever sit behind the Oval Office desk again thanks to term limits, but he will return to the White House in 2016 should Hillary win. I don’t know if he has mended his reckless ways, but we can be sure the issue will come up sometime during the 2016 campaign — and rightly so.

— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for NRO.

President Nixon's Resignation
On August 8, 1974, President Richard Nixon addressed the American people to say he would resign his office the following day. Here’s a look back at Nixon’s final day in office and his departure from Washington, and excerpts from his historic speech.
Facing three counts of impeachment and newly damaging revelations about the Watergate scandal, Nixon elected to step down for the good of the country. Pictured, visitors outside the White House on August 8 read newspaper headlines announcing Nixon’s imminent resignation.
President Nixon in the oval office as he delivers his address to the nation on the evening of August 8, 1974. Said Nixon: “I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow.”
Richard Nixon’s official resignation letter to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, delivered the following day, with a note from Kissinger on the time of day (11:35 a.m.) it was received. By law, the president resigns to the secretary of state.
President Nixon gives a farewell address to members of his Cabinet, the White House staff, and invited guests. Said Nixon: “You’re here to say goodbye to us. And we don’t have a good word for it in English … the best is au revoir. We’ll see you again.” (Photo: Nixon Presidential Library)
Nixon quoted from the diary of Teddy Roosevelt, then observed from “TR’s” wisdom: “Only if you’ve been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.
Added Nixon: “Always give your best. Never get discouraged. Never be petty. Always remember: Others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win, unless you hate them. And then, you destroy yourself.”
In the White House solarium, Julie Nixon Eisenhower hugs her father while Tricia Nixon Cox and her husband Ed Cox look on. (Nixon Presidential Library)
President Nixon’s last lunch on the White House china: Pineapple and cottage cheese (Nixon Presidential Library)
Vice president Gerald Ford walks with his wife Betty, Pat Nixon, and Richard Nixon as they head for the South Lawn to depart the White House. Shortly after Nixon’s departure, Ford was sworn in as president. (Nixon Presidential Library)
The view from inside the presidental helicopter (which had not as yet been permanently designated as Marine One).
Saying goodbye. (Nixon Presidential Library)
Ever confident, even defiant, Nixon waves goodbye before boarding the presidential helicopter. (Nixon Presidential Library)
Another view of Nixon’s famous photo opp. (Nixon Presidential Library)
Rolling up the red carpet as the helicopter lifts off with Richard Nixon and his family, on their way to Andrews Air Force Base and ultimately California.
Nixon, Tricia and Pat board the presidential jet bound for California. (Since he was no longer the president at that point, the plane was not designated Air Force One.)
Richard and Pat Nixon descend from the presidential jet upon arrival at El Toro air field in southern California, where Nixon grew up in poverty and first entered state politics.
Still popular in his home state, Nixon was greeted by thousands of supporters on his arrival.
Nixon addresses the crowd gathered to greet him in California.
Nixon speaks as Pat looks on.
From left: Richard Nixon, Pat Nixon, daughter Tricia Nixon Cox, and Edward Cox head to the helicopter that will take them to San Clemente.
NIXON’S SPEECH: The following are excerpts from Nixon’s address to the nation on August 8, 1974, where he announced his resignation.
“I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as President, I must put the interest of America first. America needs a full-time President and a full-time Congress, particularly at this time with problems we face at home and abroad.”
“To continue to fight through the months ahead for my personal vindication would almost totally absorb the time and attention of both the President and the Congress in a period when our entire focus should be on the great issues of peace abroad and prosperity without inflation at home. “
“Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.”
“As we look to the future, the first essential is to begin healing the wounds of this Nation, to put the bitterness and divisions of the recent past behind us, and to rediscover those shared ideals that lie at the heart of our strength and unity as a great and as a free people. By taking this action, I hope that I will have hastened the start of that process of healing which is so desperately needed in America.”
“To have served in this office is to have felt a very personal sense of kinship with each and every American. In leaving it, I do so with this prayer: May God's grace be with you in all the days ahead.”
AFTER THE FALL: Richard Nixon in his New York office in his post-presidency years.
Updated: Aug. 08, 2014