THE CABINET CLINTON DESERVES
Oct 12, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 05 • By DAVID FRUM
"Bill Clinton's problem is not a party problem, it is not a New Democratic problem, it's a Clinton problem." That's Elaine Kamarck, a former Gore staffer now decamped to Harvard, as quoted in the New Republic last week, and hers is a line we are very likely to hear repeated more and more as the congressional elections draw closer. Just as bad things happen to good people, the theory seems to go, so even the nicest parties can find themselves under the leadership of perjurers and sexual predators. It's just one of life's little unpredictable misfortunes. And although the Democratic congressional caucus had enthusiastically dedicated itself to impeding and obstructing every investigation into the president's misconduct, and although pro-administration talking heads are still blasting Ken Starr for uncovering the truth about the president, and although the party's so-called wise men are now denying that perjury is an impeachable offense, we are still supposed to believe that Clinton is an aberration whose offenses in no way reflect on the moral character of the party that twice nominated him and still seeks to protect him.
But there's problem with this exculpatory reasoning. If the administration's difficulties were simply the product of Clinton's personal failings, the scandals would implicate nobody except the president and his staff. Instead, not only is the president in danger of impeachment, but four of his cabinet officers face charges of corruption and perjury remarkably similar to those in which Clinton himself is mired. No president has ever had as many of his cabinet officers on the wrong side of the law as Bill Clinton -- not Grant, not Harding, not Truman, not even Nixon.
Jay Leno once joked that it was typical of Clinton to divert attention from a scandal with another scandal. Behind the Lewinsky matter, behind the illegal campaign contributions from the Chinese military and other mysterious foreign sources, behind the firing of the travel-office employees, Whitewater, Mrs. Clinton's strange cash windfall and her contradictory explanations of it -- is a still deeper scandal. The president's defenders often urge us to see his infractions in context. What the public needs to understand is that the context is an administration entirely shot through with misconduct and deceit.
On October 1, Mike Espy became the first cabinet officer to go to trial for corruption in office since Teapot Dome. In a year and a half as secretary of agriculture, Espy is alleged to have accepted tens of thousands of dollars' worth of gifts from corporations regulated and subsidized by his department: tickets to sporting events (including the 1994 Super Bowl), air tickets, limousine rides, meals, and luggage. His girlfriend, Patricia Dempsey, was allegedly given thousands of dollars in cash by corporations that did business with his department. Espy is also charged with making deceptive statements so that the government would pay the cost of a leased Jeep Cherokee for his personal use back home in Mississippi.
Espy's defenders argue that the very smallness of the sums at stake proves his innocence: You can't buy a cabinet secretary with free tickets to the U.S. Open. But were the sums really so small? One of Espy's benefactors, a firm that lobbied his department, provided Dempsey, who is the mother of his children, with a job. Other benefactors made generous and sometimes illegal donations, totaling tens of thousands of dollars, to Espy's brother's congressional campaign.
Nor are small gifts necessarily less corrupting than big ones. To conceal the gifts, Espy, it's alleged, had to fill out financial-disclosure forms falsely, alter travel records, and then tell face-to-face lies to investigators, including the FBI. As Geraldo Rivera might say, if you take illegal gratuities, of course you have to lie about them. Donald Smalz, the independent counsel in the Espy case, has been unable to prove that any particular gift bought any identifiable favor from Espy, although there are some suggestive coincidences, notably the decision not to enforce tighter meat-safety standards against the chicken industry -- an industry dominated by Tyson Foods, which treated Espy with special generosity. But whatever its direct effect, a steady flow of freebies to a department head gives license to subordinates to expect baksheesh for themselves: Espy's chief of staff, fellow Mississippian Ron Blackley, improperly took $ 22,000 in consulting fees from agri-businesses after going to work at the department. (Blackley was convicted of perjury last December.)