The Magazine

WHAT, ME PRESIDENT?

Jun 1, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 37 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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ON FRIDAY, A FEDERAL JUDGE in Washington rejected the Clinton administration's claims of "Secret Service privilege," a previously unknown legal theory that would have prevented members of the president's Secret Service detail from having to testify before the Lewinsky grand jury, even if they had information relevant to the independent counsel's criminal investigation. The White House counsel's office, as well as the Treasury and Justice departments, tried hard to keep the agents from testifying, though it's not surprising they failed.


By legal standards, Secret Service privilege was a remarkable idea, "completely unprecedented in American law," as independent counsel Kenneth Starr pointed out. But it was not the most remarkable claim the Clinton administration has made recently. Last week, the White House also declared that, although three different executive-branch legal offices had spent more than a month lobbying for Secret Service privilege, Bill Clinton had nothing to do with the effort. In this case, his spokesmen claimed, the president has been utterly disconnected from the workings of his administration.


Needless to say, a lot of people didn't believe it. But what if it was true? What if the president really didn't know what was going on? What if Bill Clinton turned out to be as detached and forgetful a leader as Ronald Reagan was always accused of being? It's not as preposterous as you might think. Spend some time reading his public statements, and Clinton begins to make Reagan look like a championship contestant on Feopardy.


Consider the Clintons' trip to Africa this March. While the president's entourage was in Uganda, reporters learned that Clinton had attempted to prevent the testimony of White House aide Sidney Blumenthal by invoking executive privilege (not to be confused with the newfangled Secret Service privilege). Asked about the development at an impromptu press conference, the president looked baffled. "All I know is, I saw an article about it in the paper today," he replied, as if unaware that he is the only person in America who can invoke executive privilege and that any document doing so would bear his signature. "I don't know. You should ask someone who knows." The Washington Post seemed surprised by his forgetfulness -- "The president responded as though he were a bystander in the controversy, rather than its central character" -- but it wasn't Clinton's first brush with memory loss.


Years back, early in the 1992 presidential campaign, the candidate was asked to comment on reports that his uncle, Raymond Clinton, had pressured an Arkansas draft board to exempt him from being inducted. Clinton seemed shocked. "It's amazing to me," he said. It wasn't until the next day, when confronted with contradictory evidence, that Clinton remembered that -- oh, yes -- he had known about what his uncle did.


An embarrassing moment, but not the last. In the ensuing years, Clinton has forgotten all sorts of things, from meeting Paula Jones, to making fund-raising calls from the White House, to having conversations about money with his old friend David Hale. Clinton's memory seemed to get worse with time, and even when he could remember things, he sometimes seemed ignorant of what was happening around him. When the travel-office scandal exploded, for example, Clinton said he had no idea that there was an FBI investigation going on in the White House, or that his aides had ordered it. When questioned under oath about Whitewater, Clinton claimed he didn't know a thing about what Susan and Jim McDougal, his business partners, were doing with his money -- had no knowledge of land they had bought, didn't know about loans they had taken out on his behalf. The president's wife, who apparently also is forgetful, said she was unaware that Jim McDougal had been paying off some of her personal loans. When the now-famous missing billing records suddenly appeared in the private living quarters of the White House, Mrs. Clinton explained that she had "no idea" how they got there. Neither of the Clintons seemed to know that, in the days before he died, deputy White House counsel Vince Foster, one of their closest friends, had been working on several years' worth of their overdue Whitewater tax returns.


And, speaking of friendship, the president claimed to be unaware that his friends Mack McLarty and Vernon Jordan were soliciting consulting contracts for another of his friends, Webb Hubbell, who was -- again, unbeknownst to Clinton -- about to be indicted.