Entries from March 1997

Bill Milhous Clinton

David Frum March 24th, 1997 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Somewhere Richard Nixon’s shade is watching with admiration the performance of the Clinton White House. If only he’d run Watergate like this! Then he could have claimed that the break-in proved the need for tougher federal anti-burglary laws.

But while Nixon could have learned a great deal from Bill Clinton, Clinton could also learn a few lessons from the master of political chicanery. Perhaps the first lady could summon one of her psychic friends to bring the two scandal-plagued presidents together for a seance, because the president seems to be committing the same serious error that ultimately brought Nixon down.

Unnamed sources near the president told R. W. Apple of the New York Times, who reported their views in a gossipy backgrounder, that all of the commotion around the fund-raising scandal is an inside-the-Beltway tempest: Their polls show that the public at large doesn’t really care. The trouble is, there’s nothing so inside-the-Beltway as denying that scandals matter beyond- the-Beltway. No, the fund-raising scandals have not yet moved public opinion much. But President Nixon could tell you that public opinion is no bulwark for a politician caught violating the law.

The Watergate scandal began to gather momentum in the early spring of 1973. John Dean told his story to the Watergate special prosecutor in March, and Haldeman and Ehrlichman were forced to resign in April. As late as May, however, Gallup found that Nixon’s approval rating remained in the 45 percent vicinity — roughly where President Clinton’s stood through most of his first term.

Dean testified before the Senate in June, and in August the public learned of the president’s secret tapes. But a September 1973 poll found that 50 percent of Americans still believed that Watergate was getting more attention than it deserved. On October 20, Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox, prompting the resignation of attorney general Elliot Richardson and an assistant attorney general. By then, three out of four Americans believed Nixon was guilty in the Watergate scandal. By a 54-37 percent margin, however, they still opposed removing him from office.

As late as January 1974, shortly after Nixon confessed to having known of payoffs to the Watergate burglars and having originally lied about it, more Americans opposed his removal from office than favored it. In fact, not until May of 1974 — 13 months after the first credible reports of presidential lawbreaking, by which time a previous Nixon attorney general had pled guilty and virtually the entire senior White House staff had been indicted — did more Americans favor removing Nixon from office than keeping him at his job.

The point? The public takes its cues on Washington scandals from the people it employs to pay close attention to affairs in Washington: the press, Congress, the Justice Department. When Washington collectively decides that serious lawbreaking has occurred, public opinion will follow. Public opinion is a lagging indicator: If the opposition is the prosecution and the press is the judge, the public is the jury. But once the press has decided that the president has committed a serious wrong — as the Washington press seems, grudgingly and unhappily, finally to be deciding about Bill Clinton — the public comes to believe it too.

The Watergate analogy holds only so far, of course. In Watergate, everybody knew what the crime was — breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters to wiretap the phones — but the degree of presidential responsibility remained unclear until the end. In the fund-raising story, the degree of presidential responsibility is clear — Clinton was in it up to his eyebrows — but the precise nature of the lawbreaking has not yet been fully revealed.

In Watergate, the underlying crime involved the violation of laws that everyone is familiar with: laws against burglary and illegal eavesdropping. As far as we yet know, the laws broken by the Democrats in their fund-raising campaign are complicated statutory and regulatory regimes.

There may be one other important difference as well: Republicans would be unwise to count on the Clinton scandals alone to deliver them future political victories like those won by the Democrats in 1974 and 1976. Watergate wasn’t the only thing the Democrats had going for them in 1974 and 1976: Inflation was raging at 13 percent, the country was mired in the worst recession since 1940, motorists were queuing up for gasoline, and the country had just lost 58,000 soldiers in an unsuccessful war. What would have been Watergate’s effect if the country had been peaceful and prosperous?

It’s not entirely a hypothetical question. In 1923, the Republicans were hit by the first of this century’s great scandals: Teapot Dome, the corrupt sale of oil from naval reserves in Wyoming and California. The secretary of the interior actually went to jail for corruption — he’d taken more than $400,000 in bribes. President Harding was guilty, at best, of gross negligence. Luckily for everyone, he died almost immediately afterward. The next year, Republican presidential nominee Calvin Coolidge won 54 percent of the vote, and the GOP retained control of both houses of Congress.

There aren’t any free lunches in politics: Scandal or no scandal, the Republicans will have to earn back the White House and deliver legislative accomplishments to keep the Congress.

No matter how they end, the fund-raising scandals have been useful to the country in at least one way: They have finally helped us to understand the difference between an Old Democrat and the newfangled Bill Clinton version. An Old Democrat believes that when a 15-year-old from a broken home mugs an old lady, we should avoid condemning him and instead try to see his actions in context. A New Democrat wants to throw the 15-year-old in the slammer; it’s only well-educated politicians who, when caught, should be permitted to offer the “How else was I to afford a new pair of Nikes?” excuse. A New Democrat believes that the poor and the ignorant must show personal responsibility; but for the infractions of the highest officeholder in the land, society is to blame.

Israeli Actions Always Blamed for Threatening Peace Process

David Frum March 15th, 1997 at 12:00 am Comments Off

It’s a curious thing, this Middle East peace process. We hear over and over again that it is in danger — but never from Palestine Liberation Organization actions that violate the terms of the agreement signed on the White House lawn in 1993. No, it is always and exclusively Israeli actions that threaten the peace process, and (more strangely) Israeli actions that in no way contravene the 1993 treaty.

Just last week, King Hussein of Jordan sent Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a blistering letter warning that the Middle East again stood on the brink of catastrophe. The cause? The same Israeli outrage that has prompted Yasser Arafat to summon American, Russian, Arab and European diplomats to meet with him in Gaza to plan joint action against Israel; the same outrage that the UN is about to condemn; the same outrage that has our own External Affairs Department huffing and puffing — a decision to build 6,500 apartments in suburban eastern Jerusalem to relieve that city’s housing shortage.

It’s possible to understand why the Palestinians find these apartments irritating, even provocative.  But a threat to peace? Why isn’t the PLO’s four-year refusal to fulfill its only duty under the 1993 agreement — to amend its charter so that it no longer calls for the destruction of the state of Israel and the murder of its people — a threat to peace? Why didn’t Yasser Arafat’s decision to incite his troops to open fire upon Israeli soldiers when the newly elected Netanyahu opened a tourist tunnel in central Jerusalem in October elicit a scathing letter from King Hussein? As for the 200 victims of terror bombings by Palestinian guerrillas in the weeks after the signing of the agreement, the record shows not a single word spoken at the United Nations on behalf of any of them.

Yes, the apartments are to be built on ground taken by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 war. But the world seems to have forgotten why Israel possesses that ground: how the 1967 war was sparked by Egypt’s deliberate decision to close the Suez Canal to Israeli shipping in violation of the 1957 agreement for which Lester Pearson won his Nobel Prize; how Egyptian leader Gamel Abdel Nasser threatened in May 1967 to exterminate Israel and ordered UN peacekeepers away from his border; how Israel begged Jordan to stay out of the war; how Jordan attacked anyway, forcing the tiny Israeli army to fight on three fronts. The world seems to have forgotten too why Israel is so reluctant to relinquish Jerusalem: how the Jordanians barred Jews from visiting the holy sites in the eastern portion of the city in the 19 years they ruled it (from 1948 until 1967); how centuries-old Jewish graves on the Mount of Olives were desecrated by the Jordanian army; how central a place Jerusalem occupies in the Jewish faith.

On the other hand, why do we expect the world to remember any of that, when it cannot remember events that took place only four years ago? The agreement between Israel and the PLO carefully postponed a decision on how much — if any — of Jerusalem was to be surrendered to the Palestinians until the very end of the peace process; after the Palestinians had amended their charter, after they had ceased committing crimes of terrorism, after they had demonstrated themselves to be willing to live with Israel as good neighbors. They have honored none of those promises.

Instead, the PLO is prejudging the outcome of the final negotiation, and is demanding to be recognized immediately as the master of all of eastern Jerusalem. That’s the real issue in the Har Homa development, as it was with the opening of the tourist tunnel alongside the Temple Mount last fall. That PLO claim to East Jerusalem is unsupported by the 1993 agreement, and tainted by its own duplicitous and brutal behavior in the four years since the signing of the agreement.

Sad to say, however, the world’s governments and the world’s media in this matter, as in so many others, seem to be abiding by the oldest rule of Middle East politics: Israel is to be condemned when it is wrong, and is to be condemned even more emphatically, when it is right.