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.)
Former housing and urban development secretary Henry Cisneros also goes to trial this fall on charges of lying to the FBI about payments to a former mistress, Linda Medlar. Cisneros and Medlar started their affair in 1987, when he was mayor of San Antonio and she was a campaign aide. The affair became public the next year, and Cisneros retired from politics.
Cisneros succeeded in patching up his marriage after the scandal. Medlar had more trouble: She divorced and was unable to find work to support herself and her daughter. After Cisneros returned to his wife, he began making cash payments to Medlar -- payments that totaled over $ 250,000 between 1989 and 1994. In 1993, Cisneros got the tap to join the Clinton cabinet and was asked by the FBI about his relationship with Medlar. He told them that he had paid her no more than $ 10,000 a year. In 1994, Medlar exposed the story, and an independent counsel was appointed. In December 1997, Cisneros was indicted.
Cisneros has by and large received very sympathetic media treatment, in part because Medlar is an unappealing character. (She had been indicted herself for tampering with evidence.) But take a second look. Yes, he was the victim of blackmail. But unanswered questions swirl about his case, of which the most important is, Where did the $ 250,000 come from? Cisneros was not a rich man, and while he seems to have earned a comfortable living in his four years in the private sector, he had two college-age daughters and a sick son to support. The independent counsel's indictment notes that Cisneros's political supporters offered to provide Medlar with a job. Did any of them give him money for her too? If so, did those gifts cease when Cisneros entered the Clinton administration?
And what about Cisneros's tax liability? The FBI wasn't asking about the size of his payments to Medlar out of prurience: There's a federal tax due on gifts of more than $ 10,000 per year, and there's no record of Cisneros's ever having paid it. Tax chiseling is a serious crime. Lying to the FBI is a serious crime, too -- although when Cisneros comes to trial, we can expect to be told: If you're cheating on your taxes and paying blackmail with money that comes from who-knows-where, of course you're going to lie about it.
Questions have been raised about Alexis Herman's ethics ever since she served in the Carter administration. As an official in the Labor Department between 1977 and 1981, she steered millions of dollars of grants to groups like Jesse Jackson's PUSH. Jackson's group was in those days arm-twisting corporations into agreeing to quotas for minority contractors -- and after Herman left government, it was her firm that Jackson urged companies to hire to monitor the quotas.
Herman's private-sector career over the next dozen years was lucrative. She did especially well out of real estate, getting a slice of the action in downtown-Washington developments -- including the Ronald Reagan Building -- from developers who understood that taking care of friends of Jesse Jackson could speed approval by Marion Barry's city hall. A protege of Ron Brown's, Herman went to work in the Clinton administration, where her main duty seemed to be fund-raising for the 1996 Clinton campaign. (Herman arranged the bulk of the "it's only coffee" White House fund-raisers.) As a reward for a job well done, she succeeded Robert Reich as labor secretary in 1997.
Almost immediately, an African businessman named Laurent Yene stepped forward to accuse Herman of demanding kickbacks from him. In 1994, Yene had gone into business with -- and set up housekeeping with -- a good friend of Herman's named Vanessa Weaver. Weaver had bought Herman's diversity-consulting business when Herman joined the Clinton administration, and between 1994 and 1996 Weaver visited Herman at the White House some two dozen times, often in the company of her clients. Yene charges that Weaver and he had an understanding with Herman that they would pay Herman 10 percent of any business she helped to generate. He also charges that Herman pushed Weaver to ask clients to make donations to the 1996 Clinton campaign.
It took attorney general Janet Reno a year to decide that an independent counsel should look into Yene's accusations. The letter Reno filed with the court that named the counsel was written so as to lead the casual reader to think the accusations were probably false. But it conceded, almost ruefully, that where Justice Department lawyers had checked, Yene's factual claims had been corroborated. An independent counsel was named in May, and the investigation has only just begun -- which means it may be months before Geraldo gets a chance to explain: If you take kickbacks from a foreign businessman, of course you're going to lie about it.
Former Arizona governor and presidential candidate Bruce Babbitt has the sort of reputation for political integrity you get if you are an environmentalist liberal who makes self-depreciating jokes: a Mo Udall for the '90s. But whatever his character before he entered the Clinton administration, he has been spattered by the same moral sludge that has stained so many of his colleagues.
In July 1995, a lobbyist named Paul Eckstein came to see Babbitt. Eckstein and Babbitt were old friends, and Eckstein wanted a favor. Eckstein represented an Indian tribe that was trying to open a casino in Wisconsin. The application was opposed by neighboring Indian tribes who feared it would cut into betting at their dog track. Eckstein's clients were losing the bureaucratic contest, and he came to plead for a little more time to make his case. Babbitt refused and explained that White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes was demanding that the final decision against the casino be made right away. That much of the story is undisputed. According to Eckstein, however, Babbitt went on to say, "'Do you know how much these Indians,'" meaning the Indians opposed to Eckstein's clients' request, "'have given to Democrats?' I said, 'I don't have the slightest idea.' And he said, 'Half a million dollars.'"
In October 1997, Babbitt was called before the Senate to respond to Eckstein. Remember Josh Steiner, the twenty-something administration aide who explained that he had lied to his diary? Before the Thompson committee, Babbitt pleaded the Steiner defense: Yes, he had invoked Ickes's name -- but only to hustle Eckstein out of his office. He had lied to Eckstein. He had never been pressured by Ickes, his decision was the right one, and, no, it had nothing to do with the money -- which in fact amounted to $ 350,000 -- that the casino's opponents had given to the Clinton-Gore campaign.
In March of this year, an independent counsel was named to investigate whether Babbitt lied to Congress. If he did, he still has the inevitable excuse: If you're selling Interior Department decisions to the highest bidder at the White House's behest, of course you have to lie about it.
Not a party problem? One of Oscar Wilde's characters quipped of an orphan, "To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness." Similarly, any administration can see one cabinet officer enmeshed in scandal -- but four?
Not a party problem? Well, that depends how one defines "problem." (Or, as we say in the age of Clinton, how one defines "party," "not," and "a" as well.) The Babbitt case illustrates how even a man with a reputation for decency could be mired by the Democratic party's lawless fund-raising practices in 1996. The Cisneros case illustrates the readiness of the Clintonites to try to protect themselves from ordinary embarrassment by lying and deceit. And the Espy and Herman cases illustrate something more troubling still: the way that affirmative action has systematically corrupted the Democratic party.
Why was Mike Espy in the cabinet at all? Here's a petty operator, scrounging for a job for his girlfriend and free football tickets for himself. He's a type familiar to anyone who's ever had to do business with a small-town city hall; a type abundantly represented in both political parties. But he's also a type that is very rarely present in federal cabinets. That's not to say every cabinet officer is a George Shultz or a Joe Califano. Sometimes a president must wince and appoint a key political fixer or an important party boss to high office -- the way FDR appointed James Farley postmaster general or George Bush made James Baker secretary of state. President Clinton's choice of Ron Brown for secretary of commerce followed this ancient tradition. But Espy? There was no reason to give him any senior job at all. So how did he get his job? He got it the same way that Janet Reno got hers.
Quotas are hardly new things in American politics. But the race and sex quotas on which the Clinton administration has been built, and especially the race quotas, are crucially different from the old rules mandating a certain number of southerners or Catholics or union members. The racial quotas by which a cabinet is filled are just the tip of a vast network of racial quotas that pervade American society. The old rules only governed public appointments. The new quotas are the basis of a multi-billion dollar private-sector regime. This regime necessarily corrupts those who make their careers in it. It is an industry that benefits only a relative handful of minority Americans in any substantial way. Most minority Americans keep their distance from it -- some are disgusted by it. But those who have unashamedly milked it are precisely the minority Americans who have ascended to the top of the Democratic party.
That's the real story of Alexis Herman. Her career has been at bottom one long protection racket: Cut me into your real-estate deal, and you'll avoid all sorts of nasty accusations. Ignore me, and you'll be picketed by Jesse Jackson. She is exactly what you get -- what you ought to expect to get -- from a system of minority setasides and quotas in contracting. And when she is raised to the cabinet, she brings the habits and practices nurtured by this system to the very center of American government.
The essence of that system is special favors justified in the language of equal rights, and because the reality of the system is so starkly different from the disguise it travels under, the system habituates all those who live by it to never-ending lying.
And this is all the deadlier because the racial spoils system that elevated Herman and Espy and Cisneros to the cabinet is not some rotten but fundamentally minor aspect of modern Democratic politics. It is the party's reason for being. Clinton might triangulate himself away from the unions, the gays, the welfare mothers, and the ACLU, but he never would, and never could, triangulate himself away from the racial spoils system. It is that -- not Clinton's cigar -- that is the moral scandal of the modern Democratic party.
Not a party problem? It's a sign of how very troubled an organization the Democratic party is that it professes not to notice or care that Bill Clinton's "most ethical administration in the history of the Republic" has ended in a cabinet of perps.
CORRECTION-DATE: October 19, 1998
In an article last week ("The Cabinet He Deserves," Oct. 12), Ms. Patricia Dempsey was mistakenly identified as the mother of former Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy's children. We apologize for the error.
David Frum, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author of What's Right: The New Conservative Majority and the Remaking of America.