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Scalpgate's poetic justice


AS THE white flag of surrender flutters over the White House, the main concern inside is not with the weakness of Christopher of Foggy Bottom but with the ridicule generated by $200 presidential haircuts from Cristophe of Beverly Hills.

It's the little things that get to people. Thomas E. Dewey's crack about an "idiot engineer" rubbed Americans the wrong way; Richard Nixon's desire to outfit the White House police in Graustarkian helmets drew hoots, as did Jimmy Carter's fear of "killer rabbits."

And so we see the Clinton pollster, Stan Greenberg, drawn from directing decisions on Balkan and health policy and forced instead to measure voter dismay over "Hair Force One."

Mr. Clinton was so carried away by the need to enhance his appearance that he was oblivious to appearances. People read a certain arrogance into a president's willingness to tie up an international airport for 45 minutes while Cristophe does his pricey rinse-clip-and-set.

The president's image of manly informality has been blown away by a hair dryer. After he reads the working stiff's reaction to the return of Hollywood royalism, down-home "Bill" (to avoid being called "Prince William") will fire Cristophe. We can hope he will not seek to cover his embarrassment by ordering an FBI probe of the hairdresser's billing practices.

But reporters stuck on tarmacs waiting for late charter flights will scratch away at Scalpgate: Where is the contract for Cristophe's "family services"? Has he been paid yet, and how much? Does Cristophe include his expense of traveling to meet the Clintons, or does he absorb that and reduce his usual fee in return for the publicity? If so, is he making a valuable gift to the Clintons, as dress designers did to Nancy Reagan, which must catch the interest of the Internal Revenue Service?

That reference to press flights brings us to the amalgam of Hollywood cronyism, "distant" nepotism, the old spoils system operating under a new self-righteousness, and an unremarked abuse of the Justice Department -- all quickly dubbed "Travelgate."

Harry Thomason, a Hollywood pal of the Clintons who produced the inaugural extravaganza, wanted part of his payoff in the form of a shot at the White House travel business. Bill's Cousin Cathy made a pitch to replace the seven longtime employees with Clintonites who would recognize the magic Thomason name. To provide a cover for this divvying of the election spoils, an accounting firm was hired to nail the old-timers for past sloppiness.

That's politics; there's no job security in the White House. But when the press turned up Crony Thomason's pitch and Cousin Cathy's replacement plan, both written before the accountant was assigned to dig up dirt -- the Clinton White House panicked.

That's when the spoils were spoiled. To justify the firing of the staff to make way for Distant-Cousin Cathy and her friends, somebody in the White House made an improper call to somebody at the Justice Department. We should find out who: Maybe the de facto attorney general, Webster Hubbell, Hillary's law partner; perhaps FBI Director William Sessions, who seems ready to do anything to save his job.

Within hours of the White House demand, an extraordinary FBI statement was issued -- on Justice Department stationery -- that there was "sufficient information for the FBI to determine that additional criminal investigation is warranted."

Don't just kick 'em out -- kill 'em. That was an abuse of power. White House pressure to prosecute is now heavy, but the presumption of innocence has not been repealed.

If the accountant's report suggested any crime, it should have been promptly given to the FBI; employees should have been given their rights, informed of the charges and given a chance to respond.

Instead, seven people with families were not only canned, but their reputations were blackened and chances to get another job removed by a politically motivated FBI press release. Why? To provide a law-enforcement publicity cover for an embarrassing display of raw patronage.

Bill Clinton may get away with this riding roughshod over civil liberty; he may even get away with the vastly greater error of abandoning the suffering Bosnians; but there is some poetic justice in the way he will pay for trying to swagger through his presidency with $200 haircuts from Cristophe of Beverly Hills.

William Safire writes a syndicated column.

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