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Politics and Beanbag


Problem was, a Clinton cousin and a Clinton crony wanted a cutof the White House travel action. No problem, just sack the seven civil servants who had been making travel arrangements; say they were malfeasant, malfeasing, whatever the word is. And to provide a little political cover, somebody leaned on the FBI to back up the White House story.

Did we learn nothing from Watergate?

That scandal started with a burglary, run from the White House, of the Democratic campaign headquarters. Oh, well, as Mr. Dooley said, politics ain't beanbag. "I don't think you're going to see a great, great uproar in this country," Richard Nixon confided to his tapes.

But as events unraveled, it transpired that the president of the United States had harnessed federal agencies, notably the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service, to harass those on his "Enemies List." Thus was the very idea of "public service" mocked. It was for corrupting the integrity of government, not for playing hardball with Democrats, that Mr. Nixon had to resign.

Bill Clinton, of all presidents, is vulnerable to public cynicism. He said government is not, as Ronald Reagan thought, our enemy. He invoked the idealism of his own '60s generation, and invited comparisons to John F. Kennedy, who had mobilized the idealism of an earlier generation. Mr. Clinton promised to get the country moving again, to deploy government to serve the people.

Instead, we get stonewalling and partisanship. When word got out that the Clintons spent $475 on haircuts last week ($200 for Bill, $275 for Hillary), White House spokesmen had two responses: (1) The Reagans were much worse spendthrifts; and (2) Why are we talking haircuts instead of real issues like the budget and health care?

Years ago I lived in Moscow with a small child. It used to amuse me that my toddler son and the mighty, nuclear-armed Soviet government had something in common. They reacted the same way to criticism -- in fact, the same way the Clinton White House reacts. Either (1) they said "You're one, too" ("Daddy's naughty," "The United States is the greatest violator of human rights," "How much were Reagan's haircuts?"), or (2) they tried to change the subject.

My son eventually grew up and moved on to the third stage of argument, confronting issues in open debate. (The fourth stage will be when I can get him to agree with me.)

Of course, America is full of partisans. Even my family is. My wife's uncle counters any criticism of Republicans with a diatribe against Teddy Kennedy. My brother-in-law sniffs a soft line on Richard Nixon wherever there is skepticism toward Alger Hiss. (Note that neither of these men is my blood relation.)

But most of the family are not particularly partisan. Some of Teddy Kennedy's conduct appalls us, but we don't see how it gives a free pass to Ed Meese or John Sununu. If Alger Hiss spied and lied, then having been persecuted by Richard Nixon doesn't make him virtuous.

President Clinton, who won only 43 percent of the vote last November, cannot afford to rely on partisans. Yet partisans seem to be calling the tune in Washington. Never mind the campaign-finance bill, which is skewed to help Democrats and hurt Republicans. As Mr. Dooley said, politics ain't beanbag.

Even Mr. Dooley might question the wisdom of the move to repeal the Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from participating in partisan politics. It was passed in 1939 to protect civil servants from being pressured into making money contributions or otherwise working for their politically appointed department heads.

Repeal of the Hatch Act is now being presented as an extension of civil rights to federal workers, apparently on the assumption that most civil servants are likely to be Democrat loyalists. Maybe, but out our way, in Helen Delich Bentley's district, the postal clerks could turn out to be Republicans. Either way, I don't want to be proselytized every time I buy stamps.

We will respect our government when we have confidence that it is working for us. Ronald Reagan told us that government workers were parasites. Bill Clinton said government can alleviate America's problems. But in hijacking the FBI for partisan use, he shows us, as Mr. Nixon did, that government exists to perpetuate the incumbent party's hold on power.

Mr. Clinton had better be careful. There may not be enough partisans in America to redeem his presidency.

Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion * Commentary page.

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