WASHINGTON -- Dan Burton, the embattled chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, has received the highest possible honor. His targets are calling for his head.
The Indiana Republican stands accused of three sins. First, he has committed partisanship. This breaches etiquette in Washington, where Democrats by tradition have enjoyed exclusive privileges to partisan savagery, while Republicans customarily have been obliged to beg for mercy.
Mr. Burton broke the rules by fighting back. This leads to his second transgression: He recently called the president a scumbag -- or, more accurately, said "yes" when a reporter asked if he agreed with the characterization. Upon hearing of the calumny, Democrats got the vapors and called for Mr. Burton's ouster.
The lynching team includes a few folks who, in the heat of battle, also have used colorful language. Democratic Rep. Paul Kanjorsky of Pennsylvania once called a Republican committee staffer a "scumbag." Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat and Holocaust survivor, referred to independent counsel Donald Smaltz as a Nazi.
In truth, most Democrats privately share Mr. Burton's characterization. Get any one of them in a secluded spot, and he will complain about being mortified over having to defend a president they consider a liar, fraud and sex addict.
Finally comes his third crime, which Democrats call the capper: Mr. Burton released some, then nearly all, of the prison phone conversations involving former Deputy Assistant Attorney General Webster Hubbell. He cut loose of the tapes just after a grand jury in Little Rock indicted the affable crook on charges of tax fraud.
Rep. Henry Waxman, ranking Democrat on the committee, first asserted that Mr. Burton had no right to release the recordings, only to discover that the committee entered the tapes into the record months ago.
Mr. Waxman next complained that the release constituted an egregious violation of Hubbell's privacy rights. But prisoners have no such rights, and Hubbell made it clear he knew the conversations were being recorded.
Democrats also accused Mr. Burton of selecting tape passages that reflect poorly on the Clintons and ignoring sections that might exculpate them. Mr. Burton confessed that some of the excerpts seemed to give the wrong impression but also noted that he released other sections that seemed to exonerate the president and Mrs. Clinton.
Finally, Mr. Burton's foes accused him of showing insensitivity toward Suzy Hubbell. Yet, Hubbell's wife gives the strong impression on the tapes that she's less worried about Republicans than about vindictive Friends of Bill.
The Hubbell controversy is wildly overblown. The tapes are anything but sensational. They give one the impression of a crook trying to mend his marriage, keep his post-prison employment options alive and avoid running into the Clinton buzz saw.
Cracking the wall
Mr. Burton finds himself in the cross hairs mainly because he has succeeded in chipping flecks from the administration stone wall. Democrats have singled out for personal attack his two most tenacious investigators, David Bossie and Barbara Comstock, hoping House Republicans would kowtow to pressure by dumping the two most successful sleuths on the Republican side of the aisle. Mr. Bossie they considered especially dangerous because he knows more than anybody on Capitol Hill about the scandals. He, for instance, is the man who uncovered the key elements of the fund-raising scandal, including the relationships between James Riady, John Huang and Team Clinton.
Democrats got their way last Tuesday evening, when House Speaker Newt Gingrich gave Mr. Burton an ultimatum: Fire Mr. Bossie, or lose your chairmanship. Mr. Bossie resigned.
Republicans thus botched a week in which most of the news was going their way. Democrats looked bad when they refused to grant immunity to four witnesses who could clarify the role foreign contributions played in the 1996 campaign. And they had no good reaction to the actual content of the Hubbell tapes. They wisely remained mum about the core allegation that Clinton friends paid for Hubbell's silence.
The coming days will test not only Mr. Burton's mettle but also Mr. Gingrich's. A good commander stands behind his troops.
If GOP leaders garrote Mr. Burton -- as seems increasingly likely -- they will vindicate the Democratic strategy of sowing chaos and savaging investigators, and they'll discourage GOP members from taking on the establishment.
The real question for Republicans -- and their "lessons learned" speaker -- is whom they consider the real enemy: stonewalling Democrats and their media mouthpieces, or Republican staffers who are succeeding, against all odds, at excavating shards of truth about life behind the scenes at Casa Clinton.
Tony Snow is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 5/08/98