October 5, 1999
Bush Family Politics
The elder Bush's dark side has surfaced most glaringly during campaigns when he is in what he called campaign mode. In both 1988 and 1992, George H.W. Bush unleashed his team of political attack dogs to savage the reputations of Bush's adversaries, Republican and Democrat alike.
The general election campaign against Michael Dukakis in 1988 stands as one of the nastiest in U.S. history, with Bush playing the race card by using Willie Horton, a black inmate who raped a white woman while he was on a Massachusetts prison furlough.
Bush charted a similar course in 1992, with the goal of destroying Bill Clintons reputation and winning re-election by a kind of political default.
Newly released documents show that Bush was personally involved in a controversial "silver bullet" strategy aimed at disqualifying Clinton with the voters by portraying the Democrat as disloyal to his country or even a pawn of Soviet bloc intelligence.
In a previously undisclosed interview with federal prosecutors, Bush acknowledged that he was "nagging" his aides to press a sensitive investigation into Clinton's student travels to the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. Bush also expressed strong interest in rumors that Clinton had sought to renounce his U.S. citizenship.
Bush then described himself as "indignant" that his aides failed to discover more about Clinton's student activities. But Bush stopped short of taking responsibility for the apparently illegal searches of Clinton's records.
"Hypothetically speaking, President Bush advised that he would not have directed anyone to investigate the possibility that Clinton had renounced his citizenship because he would have relied on others to make this decision," the FBI interview report read. "He [Bush] would have said something like, 'Let's get it out' or 'Hope the truth gets out'."
The National Archives released the records from the so-called Passportgate affair in August in response to my Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] request.
On one level, the documents represent an anatomy of a campaign dirty trick. On another, the documents offer fresh insight into how President Bush played electoral politics and how his son, who was an adviser to his father's presidential campaigns, might act if he finds himself in a close race.
Ironically, too, the records reveal how President Bush sought to expose and exploit Clintons actions as a young man -- though Gov. Bush is insisting now that his young and foolish behavior is not relevant to Campaign 2000.
The documents also depict President Bush as raging, Nixon-like, about political enemies, demanding action and then counting on his subordinates to ignore some of his more outrageous ideas. When the subordinates didn't and a political crisis followed, Bush coolly distanced himself from the fallout.
Prior to the release of these documents, the questionable acts of pawing through government files on Clinton in fall 1992 -- and soliciting foreign governments to do the same -- had been blamed on overzealous subordinates or right-wing Republicans in Congress.
But the documentary record now makes clear that Bush was the driving force behind this silver bullet search.
The Passportgate controversy began in mid-September 1992, with Clinton leading in the polls and Bushs brain trust pondering ways to exploit the Clinton "character" issue.
White House chief of staff James Baker heard about press inquiries seeking government records on Clinton's anti-Vietnam War activities. Reporters from several news organizations, including the right-wing Washington Times, had filed FOIAs.
At the same time, rumors were floating around conservative circles that Clinton might have written a letter renouncing his citizenship during the war. Recognizing the damage these rumors could cause Clinton, Baker asked other administration officials about the status of the FOIA requests. Eventually, the high-level White House interest was communicated to State Department official Elizabeth Tamposi.
Tamposi, a Bush political appointee, saw the White House interest as a green light to speed up the search and override concerns that expedited action could violate Clinton's privacy rights.
On the night of Sept. 30, Tamposi dispatched three aides to the federal records center in Suitland, Md. They searched Clinton's passport file as well as his mothers, presumably because they thought it might contain some references to Clinton.
The State Department team did not find the rumored renunciation letter. But Bush aides did not give up the hunt. Tamposi contacted the U.S. embassies in London and Oslo and ordered searches of consular files in those countries. Only the London embassy complied and found nothing.
With little to show for their efforts, Bush officials next constructed a suspicion that a Clinton sympathizer might have tampered with the passport file and removed the supposed renunciation letter. They cited staple holes and a slight tear in the corner of Clinton's passport application to justify a criminal referral to the FBI.
The existence of the referral was then leaked to Newsweek, which published a story on Oct. 4 with precisely the disloyalty spin that the Bush campaign had wanted. The Bush campaign then seized on the Newsweek story as an opportunity to raise more suspicions about what Clinton was up to when he made a student trip to Moscow over New Year's Day 1970.
With these negative themes on the table, Clinton's loyalty became a hot campaign issue and Clinton's advisers nervously watched their poll numbers soften. The Bush camp upped the ante more, putting out new suspicions that Clinton might have been a KGB "agent of influence." The Washington Times headlined that allegation on Oct. 5, a story that attracted President Bush's personal interest.
"Now there are stories that Clinton may have gone to Moscow as [a] guest of the KGB, but who knows how that will play," Bush wrote in his diary on Oct. 5, 1992. The entry was typical of Bush's frequent complaint that the news media sympathized with Clinton's anti-war background and didn't hold the Democrat to account for his actions.
Yet sensing that the loyalty theme was undermining Clinton with the American people, Bush added his own fuel to the fire on CNN's Larry King Live on Oct. 7. Bush suggested anew that there was something sinister about a possible Clinton friend tampering with Clinton's passport file.
"Why in the world would anybody want to tamper with his files, you know, to support the man?" Bush wondered before a national TV audience. "I mean, I don't understand that. What would exonerate him -- put it that way -- in the files?"
The next day, in his diary, Bush ruminated suspiciously about Clinton's Moscow trip: "All kinds of rumors as to who his hosts were in Russia, something he can't remember anything about."
But the GOP attack on Clinton's loyalty prompted some Democrats to liken Bush to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who built a political career on challenging peoples loyalties without offering proof.
On Oct. 9, the FBI complicated Bush's strategy further by rejecting the criminal referral. The FBI concluded that there was no evidence that anyone had removed anything from Clinton's passport file.
At that point, Bush began backpedaling: "If he's told all there is to tell on Moscow, fine," Bush said on ABC's Good Morning America. "I'm not suggesting that there's anything unpatriotic about that. A lot of people went to Moscow, and so that's the end of that one."
But the newly released documents reveal that Bush was not so ready to let the loyalty theme go. He was set to pepper Clinton with quips about the Democrat's alleged disloyalty during the first presidential debate on Oct. 11.
On Oct. 10, Bush prepped himself with a list of "zingers" about the passport issue and Clintons trip to Moscow, if the right opening presented itself during the debate.
"It's hard to visit foreign countries with a torn-up passport," read one of the scripted lines.
Another zinger read: "Contrary to what the Governor's been saying, most young men his age did not try to duck the draft. A few did go to Canada. A couple went to England. Only one I know went to Russia."
If Clinton had criticized Bush's use of a Houston hotel as a legal residence, Bush was ready to hit back with another Russian reference: "Where is your legal residence, Little Rock or Leningrad." [For more on the zinger list, see Bushs Zingy One-Liners.]
But the Oct. 11 presidential debate -- which also involved Reform Party candidate Ross Perot -- did not go as Bush had hoped. Bush did raise the loyalty issue in response to an early question about character, but the incumbent's message was lost in a cascade of inarticulate sentence fragments.
"I said something the other day where I was accused of being like Joe McCarthy because I question -- I'll put it this way, I think it's wrong to demonstrate against your own country or organize demonstrations against your own country in foreign soil," Bush stated.
"I just think it's wrong. I -- that -- maybe -- they say, 'well, it was a youthful indiscretion.' I was 19 or 20 flying off an aircraft carrier and that shaped me to be commander in chief of the armed forces, and -- I'm sorry but demonstrating -- it's not a question of patriotism, it's a question of character and judgment."
Clinton countered by challenging Bush directly. "You have questioned my patriotism," the Democrat shot back.
Clinton then unloaded his own zinger: "When Joe McCarthy went around this country attacking people's patriotism, he was wrong. He was wrong, and a senator from Connecticut stood up to him, named Prescott Bush. Your father was right to stand up to Joe McCarthy. You were wrong to attack my patriotism."
Many observers rated Clinton's negative comparison of Bush to his father as Bush's worst moment in the debate. An unsettled Bush never regained the initiative.
Through the campaign's final weeks, Bush shelved the prepared Moscow zingers. But he did resort to other clumsy insults against Clinton and his running mate, Al Gore.
"Listen to Gov. Clinton and Ozone Man," Bush shouted at one campaign stop. "This guy [Gore] is so far off in the environmental extreme, we'll be up to our neck in owls and out of work for every American. This guy's crazy. He is way out, far out. Far out, man."
Bush added, "My dog Millie knows more about foreign affairs than these two bozos."
Although stung by the passport-ploy failure, the Bush campaign also kept quietly pursuing derogatory information about Clinton's student travels.
In the days after the debate, phone records revealed a flurry of calls from the Bush-Quayle campaign headquarters to Czechoslovakia. There were also fax transmissions on Oct. 14 and 15.
On Oct. 16, what appears to have been a return call was placed from the U.S. Embassy in Prague to the Bush-Quayle office of ad man Sig Rogich, who was handling anti-Clinton themes for the campaign. [Rogich is now Nevada state finance chairman for Gov. Bush's presidential campaign.]
Following these exchanges, stories about Clinton's 1970 Prague trip began popping up in Czech newspapers.
On Oct. 24, three Czech newspapers ran similar stories about Clinton's Czech hosts. The Cesky Denik story had an especially nasty headline: "Bill Was With Communists."
The Czech articles soon blew back to the United States. Reuters distributed a summary and, over three consecutive days, The Washington Times ran articles about Clinton's Czech trip. The Clinton campaign responded that Clinton had entered Czechoslovakia under normal procedures for a student and stayed with the family of his Oxford friend.
Despite these last-minute efforts to revive the Clinton's loyalty issue, the Democrat held on to defeat Bush in a three-way race. But after the election, the passport searches had some surprising repercussions.
On Nov. 10, The Washington Post published a story claiming that the State Department also had searched the passport files of Ross Perot. Though the story apparently was inaccurate -- Perot's files had been moved for safekeeping but not searched -- Bush demanded that acting Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger fire the official in charge, Elizabeth Tamposi.
"I told Larry Eagleburger we had to get rid of the person that did it," Bush wrote in his diary.
Angered by her dismissal, Tamposi revised her earlier statements to State Department Inspector General Sherman Funk. Tamposi claimed that she had conducted the Clinton passport search at the behest of White House officials, particularly Baker's aide Janet Mullins. Tamposi's new assertions prompted Funk to expand his inquiry of the case.
Fearing a spreading scandal, a distraught Baker contacted Bush on Nov. 16. According to Bush's diary, Baker was "worried that it's going to end up on his door step."
Though the Washington Establishment held Baker in high regard, Baker had been implicated in another famous electoral dirty trick, the purloining of President Carter's debate briefing book during the 1980 campaign.
Increasingly nervous, Baker tried to submit a letter of resignation on Nov. 20, but Bush refused to accept it. "Jim Baker came in here this morning about 10:30 deeply disturbed and read to me a long letter of resignation all because of this stupid passport situation," Bush wrote in his diary.
Brushing aside Baker's fears, Bush remained hopeful that no independent counsel would be appointed, especially since that law was set to expire on Dec. 15. Plus, Attorney General William Barr had rejected other appointments in Bush-connected cases.
In December, however, Janet Mullins refused to answer questions and Inspector General Funk referred the case to the Justice Department. Barr concluded that he had no choice but to submit a special-prosecutor request to a newly reconstituted three-judge panel that selects independent counsels.
The Bush administration was lucky though, because Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist had ousted a moderate Republican, Judge George MacKinnon, who had picked Lawrence Walsh to investigate the Iran-contra scandal.
Rehnquist replaced MacKinnon with Judge David Sentelle, one of President Reagan's conservative judicial appointees and a protégé of Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C.
Sentelle recruited a fellow Reagan appointee, former U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova, to act as the independent counsel. DiGenova was named in a sealed order on Dec. 14, the day before the law was to lapse.
(In Senate testimony earlier this year, Judge Sentelle explained that his policy in selecting special prosecutors to investigate President Clinton and Democrats was to find Republicans "who had been active on the other side of the political fence." Sentelle followed the opposite strategy when he picked diGenova, a Republican, to investigate potential crimes by a Republican administration. For details on Sentelle's selectivity, see iF Magazine, May-June 1999)