It's Politics Of Personal Destruction


Washington -- Nothing in Gen. Michael Carns' 35-year Air Force career -- not the 200 combat missions he flew in Vietnam, nor the all-nighters in the Pentagon helping to direct Desert Storm -- prepared him for the way politics is now practiced in this city.

Selected by President Clinton last month to be CIA director, General Carns was dealing with a seemingly trivial matter discovered during an FBI background check: He and his wife fudged on immigration forms when bringing over a housekeeper's nephew from the Philippines.

Nothing, it seems, is minor in politics anymore, but General Carns walked away from his nomination without a fight for another reason: unsubstantiated gossip about one of his family members passed on to the FBI by the immigrant he helped enter the country.

"He was ready to come out of retirement and serve the country," said one Air Force friend. "He was not willing to have his family accused of -- whatever."

This phenomenon -- Hillary Rodham Clinton calls it "the politics of personal destruction" -- is not new. And what happened to General Carns is actually minor compared to what many others have endured.

General Carns did not incur hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills while being investigated by a special prosecutor; he was not grilled about personal issues in a televised Senate hearing; he was not subjected to an Ethics Committee investigation into accusations of misconduct without letting him see the evidence.

As such occurrences have become commonplace in Washington, an increasing number of political leaders -- in both parties -- have concluded that democracy in America has been debased.

"It persuades citizens that everyone in Washington is a crook or a reprobate -- and that therefore nothing good can come from government," said American Enterprise Institute scholar Suzanne Garment, author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics."

Much has been made of the fact that General Carns was not Mr. Clinton's first choice for CIA director, but officials in both the Reagan and Bush White Houses also complained about the difficulty of always getting the people they wanted.

"There was that old canard, 'The president calls and you come,' " recalls E. Pendleton James, White House personnel director in the Reagan administration: "But I saw people tell the president they wouldn't come. . . . To them, Washington was this bizarre nightmare of rules and Senate hearings and disclosure forms -- and they're afraid of getting caught up in that web."

Vincent Foster's fate

Vincent W. Foster was considered one of the shining lights in the Arkansas legal community when he came up to help his boyhood friend Bill Clinton by serving as deputy White House counsel. But Mr. Foster got caught up in a messy firing at the White House travel office and months later committed suicide.

"I was not meant for the job or the spotlight of public life in Washington," Mr. Foster wrote in a note found after his death. "Here ruining people is considered sport."

That phrase haunts his old friends in the Clinton administration. But Republicans who have been seared by this spotlight often recite a line of their own. It was uttered by Reagan administration Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan, who, upon being found not guilty by a jury in his corruption trial, was being instructed where to go in the courthouse to complete the post-trial paperwork.

"Which office do I go to," he asked, "to get my reputation back?"

Those caught in this process often lash out at the press, which has different standards regarding personal privacy than it did during the Kennedy presidency and before. But in hindsight, many also focus on a second factor: the disdain, even hatred, that Republicans and Democrats direct at each other.

It begins in the campaigns, they say, where even local candidates contract with nationally known hired guns to produce "attack ads." It continues at confirmation hearings, where each side taps its friendly interest groups to gather dirt on the nominees. It attains a new level in congressional hearings where traps are laid for hostile administration witnesses -- and the penalty for a misstep is a perjury rap. Finally, it reaches its zenith in the special prosecutor system, described as an Orwellian nightmare by those who have experienced it.

Political historians agree that the current environment of mistrust dates to the Watergate scandal and the resignation of Republican President Richard Nixon in 1974. The Democrats elected in the aftermath, including President Jimmy Carter, produced the Ethics in Government Act of 1978. That law contained vast new financial-disclosure requirements, new conflict-of-interest rules and the special prosecutor law.

Today, many Democrats still defend this law. Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, for one, argues forcefully that it is an essential tool to maintain people's faith in government.

But others believe it may have had opposite effect, including Hamilton Jordan, Jimmy Carter's chief of staff and the first to feel the new law's sting.

A special prosecutor, appointed after a nightclub owner claimed to have seen Mr. Jordan snort cocaine, exonerated him, but only after a four-month inquiry and testimony from 33 witnesses before a grand jury in a case that cost him $100,000 in legal fees -- at a time the law contained no provision for being reimbursed.

"The law was well-intentioned," he says today, "but an overreaction to Watergate."

Over the years, the most damning accusation is that the special prosecutor system has been used as a political tool to criminalize what ought to be policy debates.

The example cited most frequently is Theodore B. Olson, who formulated the Reagan administration's policies regarding the release of EPA documents to Congress -- and found himself targeted by powerful Democrats on Capitol Hill.

Judiciary Chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. prepared a report on Mr. Olson -- and called for a special prosecutor. One was appointed, and after six years the independent counsel announced she wasn't indicting Mr. Olson -- because he'd told the truth.

After an independent counsel was named in the Whitewater investigation, more than a dozen Clinton administration aides retained private counsel, testified before a grand jury -- and began to fret. The president and his wife hired an attorney, gave depositions and fielded questions about their basic integrity. Some of their friends have pleaded guilty to crimes unrelated to anything done in government service, but which were uncovered by a prosecutor empowered to range far and wide.

Two original members of Mr. Clinton's Cabinet, Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, who has since resigned, and Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros, are already being investigated by a special prosecutor. A third, Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown, is being probed by the Justice Department to see whether one should be named.

Some Republicans have taken delight in the anguish of their tormentors, while others are empathetic.

"I know something about Bill and Hillary Clinton right now," wrote Rachel Abrams in a published letter. She is the fiery wife of Elliott Abrams, who was assistant secretary of state under President Reagan and who, after a five-year Iran-contra investigation, ended up pleading guilty to two misdemeanor charges. "I know how their stomachs churn, their anxiety mounts, how their worry over their defenseless child increases. I know their inability to sleep at night and their reluctance to rise in the morning. I know every new incursion of doubt, every heartbreak over bailing out friends . . . every jaw-clenching look at front pages. I know all this, and the thought of it makes me happy."

Margaret Tutwiler takes a different view. A Bush administration State Department official, she was left embittered and in debt -- but exonerated -- in the wake of an investigation into whether she improperly tried to obtain Bill Clinton's passport files. Ms. Tutwiler says the two parties must work to break this cycle of revenge.

"For the future of our country, we have to find a way . . . to duke out our partisan differences without enmeshing innocent people in the criminal justice system," she said.

But the special prosecutor system is only part of the problem.

Case of Dr. Henry Foster

Friends of U.S. surgeon general-nominee Dr. Henry W. Foster Jr. say they don't recognize the pro-abortion fanatic portrayed in some news accounts. One former patient recalled that Dr. Foster insisted she carry her pregnancy to term at a time she wanted an abortion. That child is now in medical school.

"We've often had problems with civility," said George Christian, former press secretary to President Lyndon B. Johnson. "We've had a time when one congressman beat another . . . with a cane. On the other hand, there certainly is a more confrontational, in-your-face attitude in society today. It's slopped over into politics."

For the Clinton administration, the postscript to the Carns case was the announcement days later of an investigation into whether Mr. Cisneros had lied to the FBI about payments to a former mistress, a woman who secretly taped their conversations, filed a lawsuit demanding more money -- and sold her story to a tabloid TV show.

Economist Robert J. Samuelson believes the politics of personal destruction follows a pattern practiced in American society at large. "We are gradually turning every bad judgment, indiscretion or even honest mistake into a potential lawsuit or crime," he wrote.

But Mr. Cisneros made a broader point, namely that those selected to come to Washington are human beings, not saints -- and that it is unreasonable to expect them to be otherwise.

"We talk a lot about people's right to know every aspect of a public official's personality and character," he said. "I don't quarrel with that. But if we're going to have the right to know, then we have to be less squeamish when we uncover the realistic dimensions of people's lives."

Carl M. Cannon covers the White House for The Baltimore Sun.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad