Posted on February 02, 1998 in Washington Watch
The scandal that has been consuming Washington during the past ten days may well have been fed by a conspiracy. However, it is not the conspiracy widely believed by many in the Arab world and in parts of the Arab American community.
Since the story of the President’s alleged affair with a White House employee broke in the midst of his meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Yassir Arafat and resulted in diverting significant attention from the peace process, it has appeared to some that the entire episode was a ploy engineered to weaken Clinton’s efforts to pursue the peace process. This is what I have heard from friends, Arab intellectuals and policy and opinion makers, as well as a flood of callers to my office and my TV and radio shows.
It is only slightly ironic that coexisting with the view is the speculation that the President, faced with this scandal, may now be forced to take military action against Iraq in order to divert public attention from his domestic difficulties.
There is, however, little evidence to support either view. In fact, if there is any conspiracy at all, it may well be the one First Lady Hillary Clinton suggested when she pointed to a five-year effort by “forces on the far right” that has been trying to destroy her husband’s presidency.
Kenneth Starr, for example, the conservative Independent Counsel, is at the center of Mrs. Clinton’s allegation. He has, since assuming his post three years ago, spent over $30 million (of taxpayer dollars) in a determined effort to charge Bill Clinton with a crime and have him removed from office. During this period, Starr has investigated: the alleged scandal involving the Arkansas land-deal known as “Whitewater”; the allegation that Mrs. Clinton withheld information from his investigation into questionable billing practices by her old law firm; the allegation that a White House employee and friend of the Clinton’s did not, as the police reported, commit suicide; alleged improprieties in the firing of employees of the White House travel office; and the improper use by a White House employee of secret FBI employment records of former Bush Administration appointees. To date, despite extending his mandate well beyond its original purpose, to investigate “the Whitewater affair”, Starr has been unable to find any offence with which to indict either the President or the First Lady.
Far from ending his investigation, each failure has only prompted Starr to look for new offences. In the current alleged scandal, Starr has connected with the right-wing funded and supported Paula Jones sex-harassment suit against the President. This has prompted the First Lady and other supporters of the President to charge that Starr is no longer investigating, but is pursuing a politically motivated vendetta to get the President.
In this vein, Starr’s efforts do not stand alone. The National Taxpayer Union recently issued a study showing that in the past three years, the Congress has spent over $190 million to investigate various charges against the White House. In all, there have been 20 Senate and House committees looking into a wide range of allegations.
Therefore, if there is a conspiracy to weaken the President, the obvious place to look, as the First Lady suggests, is to those who have been working so hard to destroy Clinton since he was elected.
Another observation that can be made that runs counter to the theory that the current White House scandal is the result of those out to damage the Middle East peace effort is that there has not been any observable change in U.S. Middle East policy.
Just this week, for example, the President issued an impressive Id al Fitr message to the Muslim world in which he reiterated his support for the Palestinian right “to live as a free people” – a formula which has been praised by the Palestinian leadership and roundly criticized by hardline Israelis. In the same greeting, the President responded affirmatively to the recent overture extended to the United States by Iranian President Khatemi. Clinton spoke of U.S. “regret over the estrangement of our two nations” and praised Iran as “an important country with a rich and ancient heritage.” He indicated that problems that currently exist between the United States and Iran “are not insurmountable” and welcomed “more exchanges between our peoples.” These views will not be received positively by hardline supporters of Israel in the United States who are determined to reject any opening to Iran.
The effort to pursue the peace process will continue as well – but in much the same manner it has since Madrid. The United States has never used overt and decisive pressure against Israel – the kind that the Arab world would like to see used and the kind we know Israel deserves given its illegal and intransigent behavior. However, this has nothing to do with the current scandal.
It is not necessary to mythologize about the hidden power of an all-powerful lobby to explain the absence of pressure on Israel – it is a function of real politics in the U.S. political system.
Moreover, in the case of Iraq, the Administration’s stance vis a vis with that country has been clear for months now. They have threatened to use force long before there was the hint of a scandal.
The real danger presented by the current scandal in Washington is not that it will change U.S. policy toward the peace process or that it will prompt the White House to use force against Iraq. The danger is that either Netanyahu or Saddam Hussein will misread the current situation and refuse to alter their policies – in the case of Netanyahu, resulting in the destruction of the peace process, and in the case of Saddam Hussein, bringing on a tragic confrontation that will only add to the suffering of the Iraqi people.
There are some disturbing, and some interesting, additional observations that can be made from the developments of the past ten days.
The real scandal of this period, I believe, has been the feeding frenzy that was generated by a wild and reckless U.S. media. First, it must be noted that the entire sordid story has been based on three sources: the illegally and secretly obtained tapes of Monica Lewinsky’s communications with Linda Tripp; rumors about the contents of the President’s and Lewinsky’s secret depositions in the Paula Jones lawsuit; and Washington-based gossip and unfounded stories.
It is evident from reading just the few published pages of transcripts of the Lewinsky tapes that Tripp, although pretending to be her friend, was in fact maliciously coaxing her to say more in order to trap her into providing allegations against the President. A little-reported fact is that while these tapes remain the major source of the story of the scandal, only a few reporters from one magazine have actually heard them, and they have heard only one-tenth of them. All of the reporting that has occurred is based on rumors and allegations of what various reporters have been told are on those tapes. This is hardly responsible journalism.
The Washington press corps has behaved badly.
They salivated over any sensational rumor and reported it as fact, subjecting American homes to unprecedented salaciousness for hours each day. The result of this non-stop barrage of sex-filled commentary has been to crate a backlash against the press itself. Too many details of the story have already been proven to be false: there was no secret service agent who caught the President and Lewinsky; there is no stained dress; and Lewinsky didn’t give the President the tie he wore at the 1997 State of the Union.
The President has vigorously denied the charges and his wife has joined in strongly supporting her husband. However, in Washington today, it has become a sign of sophistication to be cynical and disrespectful. It is not allegations about the President’s character that has fed the disrespectful jokes made by popular TV comics. The same kinds of jokes are told by the same comics about Attorney General Janet Reno, about whom there are no allegations of impropriety.
The same media that last year interrupted the President’s State of the Union message to report on the O.J. Simpson verdict, this year abandoned its coverage of the Middle East peace talks and the Pope’s historic visit to Cuba in order to devote 10 to 12 hours a day to speculate on an alleged sex scandal. The preoccupation of the U.S. press with sex and sensationalism is the scandal we should be discussing.
The President told me last week that we needed to be patient and confident and that he needed to continue to focus on the work he was elected to carry out. He appears to be doing just that and the American people are responding affirmatively.
When the story first broke last week, according to one poll, the President was enjoying a high favorability rating of 60%. After the first few days of non-stop press frenzy, his rating dropped to 56%. The press began to boast that the President’s support was eroding. But, following the State of the Union message, the President’s rating has shot up to an unprecedented 67%.
The polls also show, however, that the public is somewhat, and understandably, confused. On the one hand, they are uncertain about the charges against the President – being fed an almost daily dose of scandal for ten days now. On the other hand, they like this President and respect his performance in leading the country. Moreover, in the end, as it has been in the past two elections and in Clinton’s entire career in office, it appears that it is his performance as President that counts most with the public.
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