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Jewish World Review August 28, 2000 /27 Menachem-Av, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

Well, what a surprise: AlGore beats the rap -- IF THIS COUNTRY were serious about, yes, Campaign Finance Reform, the first thing it would do is get a serious attorney general. One who could see, or at least smell, what was in front of her nose.

Instead, Janet Reno now has rejected -- not for the first time, not for the second time, but for the third time -- a recommendation from still another top-ranking investigator that she butt out of Al Gore's case. Instead, she has let her party's presidential nominee off the hook. Again.

Al Gore's role in the campaign finance scandals of the last presidential election is still highly visible. Even if everybody is sick of thinking about it. And because everybody is, he can avoid any detailed discussion of just what he did or didn't do, and what he now remembers or doesn't remember. He has bored us into submission. It is his favorite tactic.

By now, Janet Reno's minions have gone after just about every lower-down who might have been involved in the scandals of the last Clinton campaign, and her ``Justice'' Department has been just as assiduous in leaving the higher-ups untouched.

But did anybody expect anything different from Janet Reno? When it comes to No Controlling Legal Authority, she's it. General Reno saw no reason to investigate her party's heir apparent in 1997, when these scandals were new and the American people were still capable of some moral indignation, and, three years and three investigators later, she still doesn't see anything to investigate. What a surprise.

What mystifies is not the lady's obvious prejudice, or her just as obvious conflict of interest, but why she chose to consult three honest public servants in the first place. Was she hoping just one of them would agree with her, so she could accept his recommendation and run?

In the end, what difference did any or all of them make? Louis Freeh, Charles La Bella, Robert J. Conrad Jr. ... one after the other, each reached the obvious conclusion: A Democratic attorney general has no business judging/acquitting the Democratic president who appointed her, or his vice president. And one after another, each of those three has been ignored.

The text of Mr. Conrad's extensive interview with the vice president strains credulity beyond even its usual highly elastic bounds in this Age of Clinton-Gore. Those 103 coffees at the White House running up to the presidential election? They weren't fund-raisers, says the vice president.

You could have fooled me. That a month did not pass before those caffeinated guests at the White House contributed $7.7 million to Democratic campaign coffers ... that was sheer coincidence. Besides, Al Gore remembered attending only one of those events, even though investigators reported that he was the host at 23 of them -- and had attended eight more with the president.

The vice president said that didn't sound accurate to him, but he'd have his lawyer check. Sure enough, his lawyer reported that Mr. Gore had attended 21 of those innocent gatherings. Funny how social engagements will slip a fellow's mind. Or maybe when you're vice president, all those parties tend to run together into only one.

As for his famous pilgrimage to that Buddhist temple, to Al Gore it was just an exercise in Community Outreach. (Even he no longer believes that whopper.) Yes, he knew that the Democratic National Committee had set a goal of $108 million at the time, and that it was sponsoring this event at the temple, like so many others -- but he just didn't make the connection. ``I did not know this was a fund-raiser,'' he swears, ``and I do not to this day know that it was a fund-raiser.'' If that's true, Al Gore should not be investigated for campaign finance violations, but for criminal naivete.

As usual, Mr. Gore takes refuge in a verbal distinction without a real difference: To him a fund-raiser means actually passing the hat then and there -- rather than collecting the check a little later. As in other forms of comedy, timing is all in his legal definitions, too. What he attended were ``fund-related'' events, the vice president explains. Fund-related is not fund-raising, got that? It's a little like the clintonesque difference between is and is.

Is there anybody -- besides Janet Reno -- who isn't tired of playing these lawyers' game? If the English language survives this presidential campaign, it'll be another proof of God's boundless grace.

It's not what Al Gore says that bothers so much as what he leaves unsaid. He has a way of telling the truth, but not the whole truth. It's an art with this administration, but not a high one. There's always a loose end, a clinton clause, a slippery out in the testimony. Al Gore has learned well, and why not? He's had a master for a teacher.

It'll work for a while, all this verbal rodomontade, but inevitably, days or months or years later, questions arise. And no matter how many times Janet Reno dismisses them, they linger -- like dust in a corner, just waiting to be kicked up again. Because the questions are never completely cleaned up, just covered up.

The conventional wisdom holds that now is the time for all good men to forget, and that the truth will enslave us. Justice, justice, thou shalt not pursue -- that's become the unofficial motto of these Clinton Years. It's too much trouble to remember; it might interfere with careers. Besides, it would only divide people. If we just ignore it a few more years, it'll all go away.

We do indeed forget. We forget how fragile a thing a republic can be, and how hard memory is to suppress, and how ignoring the obvious makes cynics of us all.

Even now, a phrase like Campaign Finance Reform begins to acquire a cynical sound in Al Gore's mouth, like Community Outreach and No Controlling Legal Authority. Or like the word Justice itself when it's reduced to the name of a government department.

The first casualty of corruption is the meaning of words. The next is trust. We forget some things -- like justice, like truth, like honor -- at our risk. Because they undermine trust. Some forms of government may thrive in the absence of trust, relying instead on fear or force or just a bad memory, but a republic is not one of them.

Paul Greenberg Archives


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