WASHINGTON -- It caused hardly a ripple hereabout when it was disclosed the other day that White House counselor and former Republican political publicist David Gergen had John Ehrlichman, who served time for his role in the Watergate cover-up, to lunch at the White House mess. Gergen explained that "I believe in redemption," which is understandable, what with Gergen himself having been forgiven by President Clinton for his ardent prior service to Republican Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and to the Reaganomics that Clinton has so strenuously deplored.
Nor was there much more than "raised eyebrows," as one White House staffer has put it, when Gergen came to the defense of Republican political consultant Ed Rollins after Rollins' boast -- later recanted -- that half a million dollars had been spent to discourage black voting by the winning gubernatorial campaign of Christine Todd Whitman in New Jersey, which he managed.
Gergen said on television that based on a longtime association with Rollins, "he is an honest man," and that "there is not a racist bone in his body." Gergen went on to say that Rollins had been "accused unfairly of a lot of things in the last few days by people who are running away from him," and "right now people who have known him ought to speak up and say, 'He's an honest fellow.' "
The question, however, is not whether Rollins is honest or even if he is racist. No one has accused him of dishonesty or racism. The rap against him is that in telling his little post-election tale of the spread of "walking around money" to defeat Democratic Gov. Jim Florio, he admitted to a reverse twist on the practice -- to suppress the black vote rather than to encourage turnout, black or white, that is the traditional objective.
Beyond violating the unwritten code of consultants not to talk about shady undertakings in the noble quest to elect candidates, Rollins seemed to be saying that there was no difference between paying to get people to vote and paying people to discourage voting.
Court suits against him and his party by the Democrats will endeavor to point out the difference, including the possibility of criminal charges against him on grounds that the civil (voting) rights of blacks were thus violated.
President Clinton, in a news conference after the New Jersey election, pointedly observed that the practice was wrong, but that didn't stop Gergen from speaking out in defense of Rollins. With the Democratic Party hoping to make a federal case, literally, out of this alleged Republican suppression of black votes, it might have been expected at the least that the president's remarks would have signaled to subordinates to say nothing that might take some of the political heat off the squirming opposition.
But fear of presidential ire is not a commodity in any great supply in the Clinton White House. It would be hard to imagine in the White House of Lyndon Johnson or even of Richard Nixon that an underling would give any aid or comfort to "the enemy," even something as mild as vouching for his honesty, and not immediately put himself in the doghouse. But nobody seems to fear Clinton, or worry about saying or doing something that might appear to be out of harmony with him.
Loyalty is a noble trait, even among those who hop from allegiance to one party to coziness with another, so Gergen's gestures to old friends Ehrlichman and Rollins may be understandable in that sense.
But you would think that as a Republican working in a Democratic White House he might be sensitive to those "raised eyebrows" of which one White House staffer speaks.
You would think he might break bread with Ehrlichman someplace other than the hallowed building that the convicted Watergater so defamed, and express his empathy to Rollins directly by phone, not on television.
Perhaps when Rollins is called to testify on what did or didn't happen, as a federal judge in Newark has ordered, Gergen will come forward as a character witness.
Bill Clinton probably won't mind.