To hear Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton tell it, the whole thing started with a Diet Dr Pepper.
In her new memoir, Living History, Clinton writes that on one of her first trips as First Lady, a young aide asked her what she would like to drink. “You know, I really feel like a Diet Dr Pepper,” Clinton replied.
After that, whenever she traveled, her hotel refrigerator was stocked with Diet Dr Pepper. “I felt like the sorcerer’s apprentice,” Clinton recalls. “I couldn’t turn off the Dr Pepper machine.”
The episode taught the First Lady a lesson: “I had to recognize how many people wanted to do whatever they could to please me and how seriously they might misinterpret what I wanted.”
All of that is a way for Clinton to introduce her version of the Travelgate scandal.
When she learned in 1993 that there were “concerns of financial mismanagement and waste” in the White House Travel Office, Clinton writes, “I said to Chief of Staff Mack McLarty that if there were such problems, I hoped he would ‘look into it.’”
According to Living History, that’s when the investigative Dr Pepper machine geared up. After Clinton’s “offhand comment,” she writes, an audit by KPMG Peat Marwick discovered financial irregularities in the office. Then, “based on these findings, Mack and the White House Counsel’s Office decided to fire the Travel Office staff and reorganize the department.”
To hear her tell it, Clinton had almost nothing to do with any of it. But the independent counsel’s report on Travelgate tells another story.
McLarty told a grand jury that Clinton pressed him to take action on the Travel Office issue. “The fact that the first lady, one of the principals, had raised this issue, that adds an element of priority to any matter, and it did to this one,” he testified.
Former White House aide David Gergen told the grand jury that he remembered a conversation with McLarty in which McLarty said the First Lady was “very upset” about the Travel Office and was “ginned up on that issue … and that there were at least two occasions when she made it clear to him that she wanted action taken.”
Then there was former White House administrator David Watkins. He told the grand jury that Clinton told him, before the KPMG audit was completed, “Well, you know, we need to have our people in there.” Watkins later wrote that both he and McLarty “knew that there would be hell to pay if … we failed to take swift and decisive action in conformity with the first lady’s wishes.”
After Clinton’s pressuring, Watkins fired the Travel Office workers in May 1993. Watkins wrote that when he told McLarty, the chief of staff “clearly was relieved.”
In 1995, lawyers for the independent counsel asked Clinton who made the decision to fire the Travel Office workers. She answered, “Well, the best I know is David Watkins and Mack McLarty, I assume, based on what I have learned since and read in the newspapers.”
The lawyers asked if Clinton had any role in the firings. “No, I did not,” she said. They asked whether she “had any input with either Mr. McLarty or Mr. Watkins as to that decision.” She answered, “I don’t believe I did, no.”
The First Lady’s statements, under oath, were patently false. And indeed, at the end of the investigation, independent counsel Robert Ray determined that “Clinton did play a role and have input in the decision to fire the Travel Office employees and that her testimony to the contrary was factually false.”
Yet Ray declined to prosecute, saying that “insufficient proof exists to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that Clinton … knowingly gave false material testimony.”
All that was ancient history — until the publication of Living History. Now, the former First Lady not only claims the independent counsel exonerated her but blames the enduring controversy on a “partisan political climate.”
Yeah, right. That’s her story, and she’s sticking to it.
But for the rest of us, there is the independent counsel’s report, still available on the Internet at www.oicray.com. That’s where the real history is.
— Byron York also writes a column for The Hill newspaper, in which this column originally appeared.