The Magazine


Oct 12, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 05 • By DAVID FRUM
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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.


Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt

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.