Barack Obama seeks a new era of bipartisanship, but he should take heed of what happened to the last Democrat in the White House – Bill Clinton – in 1993 when he sought to appease Republicans by shelving pending investigations into Reagan-Bush-I-era wrongdoing and hoped for some reciprocity.
Instead the Republicans pocketed the Democratic concessions and pressed ahead with possibly the most partisan assault ever directed against a sitting President. The war on Clinton included attacks on his past life in Arkansas, on his wife Hillary, on personnel decisions at the White House, and on key members of his administration.
The Republicans also took the offensive against Clinton’s reformist agenda, denying him even one GOP vote for his first budget and then sabotaging Hillary Clinton’s plan for universal health insurance.
The desperately-seeking-bipartisanship Clinton allowed Republican loyalists to stay burrowed inside the government, and he bowed to the appointment of right-wing special prosecutors (appointed by a Republican-dominated judicial panel) to investigate him and his administration.
In the first two years of the Clinton presidency, radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh emerged as a national phenomenon, regaling his huge audience with three hours a day of mocking attacks on Bill and Hillary Clinton.
At one downtown Washington restaurant, Blackie’s House of Beef, a special area was set aside so Clinton haters could listen to Rush Limbaugh’s show while eating lunch. Limbaugh’s success inspired a new generation of radio talk show hosts who got rich dishing anti-Clinton dirt.
In February 1994, when I covered the annual Conservative Political Action Conference – a kind of trade show for the Right – I was stunned by the volume and variety of hate-Clinton paraphernalia. Never had I seen anything like this well-organized, well-funded determination to destroy a political figure.
In November 1994, a resurgent Republican Party – energized by its hatred of the Clintons – wrested control of Congress from the Democrats. But rather than sating the Right’s anti-Clinton obsession, the success only fed a desire for more.
Behind a relentless investigation by right-wing special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, the Republicans pressed ahead with what became a multi-year drive to impeach President Clinton, exploiting suspicions over Clinton’s old Whitewater real-estate investment as payback for Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal.
Finally, in 1998 after Starr (with the help of a Reagan-Bush stay-behind named Linda Tripp) disclosed Clinton’s sexual dalliance with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, the Republican-controlled House impeached Clinton, though he survived a Senate trial in 1999.
With President Clinton humiliated, the stage was set for a new Republican/media war on Vice President Al Gore, whose presidential candidacy in 1999-2000 became a whipping boy for Clinton’s enemies frustrated at their inability to drive Clinton from office.
Though Gore managed to claw his way to a narrow popular-vote victory in November 2000, the race was close enough for George W. Bush – with the help of five Republican partisans on the U.S. Supreme Court – to claim the White House.
Now, after eight years of Bush’s catastrophic presidency, another Democrat has been elected to the nation’s highest office and – like Clinton 16 years ago – Barack Obama is being advised by Washington insiders to reach out to the Republicans with an open hand of bipartisanship.
Most significantly, Obama is being urged to forget about holding Bush and other top officials accountable for torture, war crimes, violations of the Constitution and other serious offenses. Obama’s even getting advice that he should leave some senior Bush officials in place as a bipartisan gesture.
Ironically, some of this advice is coming from the same people who were part of Clinton’s decisions in early 1993 to set aside investigations into Reagan-Bush-I wrongdoing and thus to allow a false history of that era to become cemented as a faux reality.
For instance, Lee Hamilton, who in 1993 was an accommodating Democratic congressman, helped sink key investigations into covert Republican relationships with Iran and Iraq. Now, as a senior foreign policy adviser to Obama, Hamilton has spoken favorably of retaining Bush’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
I’ve heard other rumblings around Washington that influential Democrats, including some who are under consideration for top national security jobs, oppose pursuing war crimes and human rights abuses committed by the Bush administration on the grounds that the 2008 electoral repudiation should be punishment enough.
Obama also is sure to hear plenty of counsel about “looking to the future, not the past,” about the need to focus on the nation’s pressing problems, not expend energy and political capital “to settle scores” from the last eight years.
Some Washington Democrats should know better. John Podesta, a co-chair of Obama’s transition team (who accompanied Obama to his Monday meeting with President Bush), was a senior member of Clinton’s White House staff in the 1990s.
Early in the Clinton presidency, I met with Podesta at the White House to ask why historical questions about serious wrongdoing by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush weren’t being pursued. Podesta told me that those issues simply weren’t “on the radar.”
I learned later that President Clinton himself was an advocate for looking past the scandals of the 1980s and for following the advice of his Fleetwood Mac campaign song, “don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.”
As I wrote in the opening chapter of Secrecy & Privilege, two old acquaintances of mine – Stuart Sender and his wife, Julie Bergman Sender – encountered Clinton in May 1994 at a social event at the White House.
Clinton started talking like one might chat with neighbors about troubles at work. He complained about how rancorous Washington had become, how beleaguered he felt, how horribly the press was treating him.
“He was unburdening himself,” recalled Stuart Sender, a documentary filmmaker from Los Angeles.
Sixteen months into his Presidency, Clinton was getting clobbered by the Republicans – and by the news media – over his Whitewater real-estate deal. There had been a firestorm, too, over allegations from Arkansas state troopers about Clinton’s philandering as governor.
A woman named Paula Jones had emerged from that controversy with claims that Clinton had crudely propositioned her. He also was taking flak over the firing of employees in the White House Travel Office.
Then, there were bizarre suspicions circulating about the suicide of White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster, who had come with the Clintons from Arkansas. Foster shot himself in the head after growing despondent over the harsh press criticism he had received for his role in the Travel Office affair, but some conservatives were spreading rumors of a deeper mystery.
Clinton felt besieged not only by aggressive Republicans but by the national press corps. Since the last Democratic President, Jimmy Carter, left office in 1981, a powerful right-wing media had come into its own, built in part as a defense mechanism to shield Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush from criticism.
Besides Limbaugh and the bevy of other talk radio hosts, right-wing print outlets had grown in number and in influence, the likes of the American Spectator and The Washington Times, not to mention The Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages and conservative columnists in newspapers across the country.
Many of the commentators also appeared on TV political chat shows to reprise their opinions for millions of more Americans nationwide.
Mainstream journalists at outlets such as NBC News and The New York Times also joined in the Clinton bashing, seemingly eager to prove that they could be tougher on a Democrat than any Republican. They were determined to show they weren’t the “liberal media” that the conservatives long had railed against.
Indeed, it was The Washington Post, the newspaper credited with unraveling Richard Nixon’s Watergate mystery, which had led the charge on the Whitewater case with front-page stories that put Clinton in a public relations corner and forced him to acquiesce to a special prosecutor.
So, during a social event on May 28, 1994, in the ornate East Room of the White House, Clinton was making the rounds of his guests and looking for a sympathetic hearing. “All of a sudden we looked up and there was President Clinton,” Stuart Sender recalled.
The chitchat soon turned to Clinton’s complaints about his ill treatment at the hands of the news media.
“He started the conversation by saying how horrible the press is being to him,” said Julie Bergman Sender, a movie producer and the daughter of songwriters Alan and Marilyn Bergman. “I was looking around at the planters. I was thinking, ‘you’re not standing in your living room, really.’”
But Stuart Sender, who had worked as a journalist on the Reagan-Bush-I-era Iran-Contra and Iraqgate scandals, had a different reaction. He wondered why Clinton had never pursued those investigations of Republican wrongdoing after becoming President in January 1993.
After all, Sender thought, those were real scandals, involving secret dealings with unsavory regimes. Top Republicans allegedly had helped arm Iraq’s Saddam Hussein as well as the radical Islamic mullahs of Iran, violations of law, constitutional principles – and common sense.
Those actions had then been surrounded by stout defenses from Republicans and their media allies. The protection had taken on the look of systematic cover-ups, sometimes even obstruction of justice, to spare the top echelons of the Reagan-Bush-I administrations from accountability.
Indeed, as Clinton was heading into office at the start of 1993, four investigations were underway that implicated senior Republicans in potential criminal wrongdoing.
The Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages case was still alive, with special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh furious over new evidence that President George H.W. Bush may have obstructed justice by withholding his own notes from investigators and ducking an interview that Walsh had put off until after the 1992 elections.
Bush also had sabotaged the investigation by pardoning six Iran-Contra defendants on Christmas Eve 1992, possibly the first presidential pardon ever issued to protect the same President from criminal exposure.
In late 1992, Congress also was investigating Bush’s alleged role in secretly aiding Iraq’s Saddam Hussein during and after his eight-year-long war with Iran. Representative Henry Gonzalez, the aging chairman of the House Banking Committee, had led the charge in exposing intricate financial schemes that the Reagan-Bush-I administrations had employed to assist Hussein.
There also were allegations of indirect U.S. military aid through third countries, claims that Bush and other Republicans emphatically denied.
Lesser known investigations were examining two other sets of alleged wrongdoing: the so-called October Surprise issue (accusations that Bush and other Republicans had interfered with Jimmy Carter’s hostage negotiations with Iran during the 1980 campaign) and the Passportgate affair (evidence that Bush operatives had improperly searched Clinton’s passport file in 1992, looking for dirt that could be used to discredit his patriotism and secure reelection for Bush).
All told, the four sets of allegations, if true, would paint an unflattering portrait of the 12-year Republican rule: two illegal dirty tricks (October Surprise and Passportgate) book-ending ill-conceived national security schemes in the Middle East (Iran-Contra and Iraqgate).
Had the full stories been told the American people might have perceived the legacies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush quite differently than they do today.
But the Clinton administration and congressional Democrats dropped all four investigations beginning in early 1993, either through benign neglect – by failing to hold hearings and keeping the issues alive in the news media – or by actively closing the door on investigative leads. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
Clinton’s disinterest in these scandals had mystified some activists in the Democratic base and some investigators who, like Stuart Sender, had watched as the rug was pulled from under these historic probes.
After the investigations died, some Democrats in Congress, who had participated in the aborted probes, came under nasty Republican attacks as did journalists who had pursued the stories.
Gonzalez had raised the ire of the first Bush administration by revealing that Bush and other senior Republicans had followed an ill-fated covert policy of coddling Saddam Hussein, disclosures that had rained on Bush’s parade after the U.S. military victory over Iraq in the first Persian Gulf War in 1991.
Now, Gonzalez was left looking like a foolish old man, a kind of modern-day Don Quixote tilting at windmills.
The same could be said of Lawrence Walsh, a lifelong Republican who crossed his own party by challenging the cover stories that had shielded top Republicans caught up in the Iran-Contra Affair.
In pressing investigations into alleged obstructions of justice, Walsh had found his reputation under ad hominem attacks from The Washington Times and other parts of the conservative news media for petty matters such as ordering room-service meals and flying first class.
Walsh was so stunned by the ferocity of the Republican defensive strategy that he entitled his memoirs Firewall in recognition of the impenetrable barrier that was built to keep the Iran-Contra scandal away from Reagan and Bush.
Walsh, too, was dismissed as a foolish old man, though the literary metaphor for him was Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab, obsessively pursuing the white whale.
But letting the outgoing Reagan-Bush-I team off the hook hadn’t earned the Democrats any measure of bipartisan protection. By spring 1994, Clinton had begun to sense the rising tide of political danger that the non-stop attacks against him represented. He was looking for allies and some sympathy.
So, as waiters poured coffee at the East Room reception and Clinton was voicing his frustrations to some of his guests, Stuart Sender saw his chance to ask Clinton why he hadn’t pursued leads about the Reagan-Bush-I secret initiatives in the Middle East.
“I had this moment to say to him, ‘What are you going to do about this? Why aren’t you going after them about Iran-Contra and Iraqgate?’” Sender said. “If the shoe were on the other foot, they’d sure be going after our side. ... Why don’t you go back after them, their high crimes and misdemeanors?”
But Clinton brushed aside the suggestion.
“It was very clear that that wasn’t what he had in mind at all,” Sender said. “He said he felt that Judge Walsh had been too strident and had probably been a bit too extreme in how he had pursued Iran-Contra. He didn’t feel that it was a good idea to pursue these investigations because he was going to have to work with these people.
“To me what was amazingly telling was his dig at Walsh, this patrician Republican jurist who had been put in charge of this but even the Democratic President had decided that this was somewhere that he couldn’t go. He was going to try to work with these guys, compromise, build working relationships.”
Clinton "really did have this idea that he’d be able to work with these guys,” Sender recalled with a touch of amazement in his voice. “It seemed even at the time terribly naïve that these same Republicans were going to work with him if he backed off on congressional hearings or possible independent prosecutor investigations.
“How ironic that he decides he’s not going to pursue this when later on they impeach him for the Monica Lewinsky scandal.”
Sender, like others who had been in the trenches of the national security scandals of the 1980s, thought the retreat on the investigations by Clinton and the Democrats after they won the 1992 elections was wrong for a host of other reasons, too.
Most importantly, it allowed an incomplete, even false history to be written about the Reagan-Bush-I era, glossing over many of the worst mistakes. The bogus history denied the American people the knowledge needed to assess how relationships had evolved between the United States and Middle East leaders, including Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, the Saudi royal family and the Iranian mullahs.
Though the Middle East crises had receded by the time Clinton took office in 1993, the troubles had not gone away and were sure to worsen again. When that time came, the American people would have a sanitized version of how the country got where it was.
Even government officials responsible for Middle East policies would have only a partial history of how these entangling alliances crisscrossed through the deals and betrayals of the prior two decades.
The Democratic retreat from the investigative battles in 1993 would have another profound effect on the future of American politics.
By letting George H.W. Bush leave the White House with his reputation intact – and even helping him fend off accusations of serious wrongdoing – the Democrats unwittingly cleared the way for a restoration of the Bush political dynasty eight years later.
If investigators had dug out the full truth about alleged secret operations involving George H.W. Bush, the family’s reputation would have been badly tarnished, if not destroyed.
Since that reputation served as the foundation for George W. Bush’s political career, it’s unlikely that he ever would have gained the momentum to propel him to the Republican presidential nomination, let alone to the White House in Election 2000.
Now, eight years later – with Barack Obama’s victory and with solid Democratic majorities again in the House and Senate – the Democrats are back to a spot very similar to where they were at the start of Bill Clinton’s presidency.
They have all the power they need to initiate serious investigations into the widespread criminality of George W. Bush’s presidency, from torture and other war crimes to war profiteering and other lucrative influence peddling.
But President-elect Obama is receiving nearly the identical advice that greeted Bill Clinton after his election 16 years ago: In the name of bipartisanship, let bygones be bygones.
This is the second part of a series on the political realities that will face President Obama – and what can be done to fix American media and politics. For part one, click on “Can the Republicans Change?”
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on November 11, 2008.