Politics & Policy

When Presidents Violate the Public Trust

President Bill Clinton in the Oval Office, June 2000 (Mark Wilson/Hulton/Getty Images)
Nixon shattered the rule of law, but Bill Clinton subjected himself to national-security blackmail.

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.

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