Executive Privilege

"Personal responsibility" applies to everyone but the Clintons.


It's not clear if President Clinton will survive the allegations surrounding former intern Monica Lewinsky. Many partisan defenders of the administration have contended that the president has done no wrong, and even if he did engage in a dalliance, Bill Clinton's personal life is nobody's business. But it is certain that, through his own actions and those of his subordinates, Clinton has continually undermined the theme that has dominated his administration's domestic agenda: personal responsibility.

In 1992, candidate Clinton pledged to promote policies that help people who "work hard and play by the rules." Over the past three years, in radio addresses on topics as diverse as cracking down on deadbeat parents ("We need everyone to take responsibility, to give children the love and support they need and deserve"), welfare reform ("We have begun to put an end to the culture of dependency, and to elevate our values of family, work and responsibility"), targeted tax cuts ("a new covenant with the American people that offers more opportunity to everyone willing to assume personal responsibility for their own lives"), and praising U.S. Olympic athletes ("They took personal responsibility and did the hard work"), the theme of responsibility has remained the center of the Clinton presidency.

Even the allegations of an illicit affair with Monica Lewinsky and an associated cover-up didn't keep Clinton from speaking of responsibility in the State of the Union Address: "We are moving steadily toward an even stronger America in the 21st century," he said. "An economy that offers opportunity, a society rooted in responsibility, and a nation that lives as a community."

It is an open question whether requiring grade-school students to wear uniforms–one Clinton recommendation–or bribing college students through AmeriCorps to do community service makes young people responsible or merely compliant. Regardless, as the current scandal reminds us, there's a serious disconnection between the administration's stated policy agenda and the actual conduct of Bill and Hillary Clinton in their professional lives: From Vincent Foster and Susan McDougal to the Travel Office staff and Monica Lewinsky, the Clintons have repeatedly evaded responsibility for their own shortcomings when it was more convenient to let somebody else take a fall. The president and first lady might have avoided a lot of trouble had they followed their own advice about personal responsibility.

When White House lawyer Vincent Foster committed suicide six months after Clinton took office, there was a lot on Foster's mind: the Whitewater investigation, the use of the FBI and the IRS to harass the recently fired employees of the Travel Office, and the unsubstantiated rumors that he was having an affair with Hillary Clinton. We may never know why Foster killed himself. Yet three years after Foster's death, the White House was indirectly blaming him for "Filegate," the scandal involving illegal snooping in the FBI files of more than 900 former White House employees. As congressional investigators tried to determine if Hillary Clinton might have ordered security chief Craig Livingstone to obtain the files, former White House counsel Bernie Nussbaum testified that Livingstone didn't report to Hillary; Vince Foster was his boss. Rather than subject Mrs. Clinton to direct questioning about her role in the FBI file scandal, the administration chose to "Blame the Dead Guy," as an Investor's Business Daily editorial noted.

Then there's former Justice Department official Webster Hubbell, one of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's first targets, who pleaded guilty to falsifying billing records while he was Hillary Clinton's law partner in Arkansas. Hubbell had also cut a deal with the independent counsel's office in which it was believed he would agree to exchange damaging testimony about the Clintons for a reduced prison term. But while Starr was investigating Hubbell, Clinton buddy Vernon Jordan (a key player in the Lewinsky scandal) arranged for Hubbell to get a "consulting" job which steered hundreds of thousands of dollars his way, a move that looks a lot like buying Hubbell's silence.

Meanwhile, Susan McDougal, one of the Clintons' Whitewater business partners, has been jailed since the summer of 1996 for contempt of court. McDougal had received immunity from prosecution in exchange for information she had about the truthfulness of Bill and Hillary Clinton's statements to federal investigators. But McDougal has refused to talk and seems willing to remain incarcerated indefinitely. If the Clintons did no wrong, why would Susan McDougal go to prison? As with Hubbell, McDougal looks suspiciously like someone who was promised to be taken care of if she didn't reveal unseemly information about the Clintons.

But the Clintons have victimized more than their friends and business partners. When the White House replaced the Travel Office employees with friends and relatives of the Clintons from Arkansas–an action that was perfectly within the administration's rights–the White House didn't allow an orderly transition to a new regime. Without warning, the Travel Office employees were given a matter of hours to clear their desks, after which they were shuttled out of their office in a van and then falsely accused of embezzlement. Billy Dale, who ran the Travel Office for more than 20 years, was financially ruined by the legal fees he accumulated, even though he was acquitted by a jury that deliberated less than two hours.

Among those people the Clintons directly supervised, Hillary Clinton's former Chief of Staff Maggie Williams claims to have run up more than $250,000 in legal bills stemming from her knowledge of details surrounding Foster's death, the FBI files, and Travelgate.

When he left the White House, former Communications Director Mark Gearan owed more than $100,000. Even ABC pundit and former Counselor to the President George Stephanopoulos claims he owes some $50,000 in attorneys' fees from his White House service. The Clintons promised to repay all their subordinates' legal bills. But they closed down their legal defense fund earlier this year, still owing more than $3 million themselves.

More victims of the Clintons' obfuscations await. Betty Currie, the president's personal secretary, testified before Kenneth Starr's grand jury, as did Stephanopoulos, former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, and his deputy, Evelyn Lieberman. Each will have to pay attorneys as a consequence. Who knows how high Monica Lewinsky's legal bills will rise even if she does get immunity from prosecution? And let's not forget Paula Jones. Even if her accusations are groundless, had Clinton simply offered an apology, rather than trashing Jones's character, we would have never heard of Monica Lewinsky, nor would we face a potential constitutional crisis.

Finally, there's the first lady. In interviews on NBC's Today and ABC's Good Morning America, Mrs. Clinton blamed a "vast, right-wing conspiracy" for the president's troubles. Set aside the fact that Attorney General Janet Reno asked a panel of federal judges to expand Starr's authority so he could investigate allegations of perjury and obstruction of justice against the president. Here's what Hillary Clinton is really saying: The people who are accusing my husband have vile motives; as a consequence, whatever my husband did, he isn't responsible for his actions.

The Clintons may survive this latest scandal. But it offers the American public another nasty example of people who would rather do anything than accept personal responsibility. Then again, truly responsible folks typically don't get themselves in such compromising positions in the first place.