Thursday, February 22, 2007

Hillary Clinton changes the subject

A funny thing happened while Hillary Clinton was denouncing the "politics of personal destruction" this week.

Senator Clinton was in high dudgeon over the refusal of Senator Barack Obama to apologize for some remarks by David Geffen, the Hollywood mega-donor who supports him for president over Mrs. Clinton. Mr. Geffen told Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Maureen Dowd, "Everybody in politics lies, but (the Clintons) do it with such ease, it's troubling."

"I want to run a very positive campaign," Senator Clinton said Wednesday at a Nevada candidates' forum, "and I sure don't want Democrats or the supporters of Democrats to be engaging in the politics of personal destruction."

Rising to the bait like yipping puppies, reporters and political commentators launched into a tedious and time-filling debate about negative campaigning.

Nobody discussed the substance of the charge--made by a former backer--that the Clintons lie "with such ease, it's troubling."

Nobody, that is, except the former Solicitor General for the Clinton administration, Walter E. Dellinger III, who was participating in a panel discussion on congressional oversight and executive privilege Thursday afternoon in Washington, televised live on C-SPAN2.

Mr. Dellinger was discussing the extraordinary breadth of an executive privilege claim made by President Clinton early in his administration in connection with the firing of the White House travel office employees. Instead of claiming privilege for specific documents, as previous presidents had done, President Clinton asserted executive privilege over two thousand pages of documents related to the firing.

There was no question, Mr. Dellinger said, that the travel office workers could be fired by the president. The problem was the suggestion by the FBI that the workers were under criminal investigation, "which they were not," he said, and the extent to which executive branch pressure might have led to that suggestion.

Mr. Dellinger said he found that troubling and cited it as an example of an executive privilege claim that was less defensible than some others.

Return with me now to October 18, 2000--seven years after the travel office workers were fired and smeared with false allegations of criminal conduct--and read the news account of Independent Counsel Robert Ray's final report in the matter of the White House Travel Office:

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Independent Counsel Robert Ray's final report on the White House travel office case found first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's testimony in the matter was "factually false," but concluded there were no grounds to prosecute her.

The special prosecutor determined the first lady did play a role in the 1993 dismissal of the travel office's staff, contrary to her testimony in the matter. But Ray said he would not prosecute Clinton for those false statements because "the evidence was insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt" that she knew her statements were false or understood that they may have prompted the firings.

In this context, an unprecedented executive privilege claim for two thousand documents looks an awful lot like an effort to make sure "the evidence was insufficient."

And now that Mrs. Clinton is a candidate for president, the claim that she didn't know or understand what she was saying is not much of a selling point.

When Bill Clinton was under investigation for perjury and obstruction of justice, he successfully changed the subject to the impropriety of harassing a sitting president about his sex life. Gone were the questions about the chief law enforcement officer of the United States lying to investigators or tampering with witnesses. Instead it was all about sex, and it was all about spending fifty million dollars to investigate something that was nobody's business.

Now Hillary Clinton wants to change the subject. She doesn't want reporters to ask why a former backer has called her a liar. She wants them to ask about the "politics of personal destruction" and the evils of negative campaigning. If she can avoid responding to all serious charges by denouncing the people who make them, she can probably sail through the primaries and win the nomination.

If the Democrats want to take back the White House, they shouldn't fall for it again.

Copyright 2007