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Jewish World Review Jan. 9, 2001 / 14 Teves, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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The quiet sell-out -- REMEMBER HOW this was going to be The Most Ethical Administration in history?

During the last transition of presidential power, the one in Little Rock, the air was charged with glowing promises as the victors set up headquarters downtown to distribute the spoils. But the process was never described so bluntly.

Instead, an old abandoned department store was converted into Presidential Transition Central, and the daily press conferences rang with announcements of new Guidelines, Parameters, Rules, Policies ... . A bright new day was going to dawn in Washington. At last governing was going to be divorced from lobbying!

The country's new president-elect had promised to close the revolving door that long has sent officials spinning profitably "from public service to private enrichment.'' Bill Clinton said he wanted to send "a signal that we are going to end politics as usual.''

(This was the campaign in which he also assured the public: "I don't have any reservations about the strength of my character.'' The frightening thing is that he probably didn't.)

The walls Bill Clinton erected between public service and private enrichment were being breached within a year, but it was all perfectly legal since the rules he had put in place came complete with escape hatches and what came to be known as clinton clauses. High-ranking officials at the White House soon left to take lucrative jobs at the head of lobbying operations:

Howard Paster, the administration's congressional liaison, walked through that revolving door between public service and private lobbying to emerge as chairman and chief executive of Hill & Knowlton, the same lobbying and PR firm he was with before joining the White House. Word was that his new salary was somewhere in the million-dollar range.

Roy Neel, deputy White House chief of staff, became president of the United States Telephone Association, which coordinates the lobbies of local and regional phone companies. His new job paid $500,000 a year.

There was always a good rationalization offered when these departures and arrivals were announced, and the revolving door kept spinning. When questions arose, the answers, as we say in Arkansas, were smooth as a frog hair cut four ways and sanded. It was enough to make a fellow nostalgic for good, old-fashioned corruption, the kind without all the elevated explanations.

To quote Pamela Gilbert of one watchdog group, Congress Watch, even before Bill Clinton had completed his first year in office: "The administration has made a very big deal about stopping business as usual, and this is exactly business as usual.''

It's debatable whether the Clinton administration has been the most unethical of the century. Stronger cases might be made for the Harding and Nixon eras. But poor Warren G. Harding was more sinned against by some of his Cabinet than sinning, and there wasn't any betrayal of trust that Richard Nixon couldn't rationalize by invoking national security.

Bill Clinton's ethical lapses may or may not have been as great, but they are definitely the most hypocritical, for he was the president who was going to have the most ethical administration in American history.

Now ending one of the more unethical administrations in American history, this president has formally revoked one of the last traces of his early pretense at reform: the rule against former officials' lobbying federal agencies for five years after they leave government.

President Clinton issued that rule less than an hour after he was sworn in on Jan. 20, 1993. It was supposed to signal a whole new way of doing business in Washington. But ways around it were soon found. And now, on his way out, the president has dropped whatever remains of the rule itself.

Again he has an explanation: These departing officials wouldn't have much clout with the incoming Republican administration, anyway, so he might as well let them lobby. As if they won't be taking with them their contacts with defense contractors, regulatory agencies, Congress, and even with the incoming members of the Bush administration they've conferred with during this transition period.

The executive director of the Center for Public Integrity threw his conventional conniption on hearing of the president's latest betrayal. "It's appalling, and it makes my blood boil,'' said Charles Lewis. "For him to set a higher standard and then quietly remove it at the end of his administration is not just appalling, it's almost breathtaking. It's just plain outgrageous ... .''

One envies Mr. Lewis. He can still be shocked and outraged after eight years of this administration. But even Charles Lewis acknowledged that he should have seen it coming: "It's just plain outrageous, but I guess it's not surprising given that it's Clinton and given all the things he has done.'' By now even the goo-goos, those naive good-government types in Washington, have caught on.

Bill Clinton has only a few more weeks in office, and only a few more ethical standards to dismantle before his tenure runs out, but he seems determined to finish the job.

Paul Greenberg Archives


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