February 26, 1999

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Editorial: Will Much Change?

Mike Doonesbury and his daughter Alex were watching the impeachment trial as a House manager denounced President Clinton’s “sexual predation.”

"If I were to let the president's odious behavior go unchallenged, how could I go home and face my wife?" the manager explained.

"His wife?" snorted Alex, "Ha! Right! That's ridiculous! ... Who'd marry a House manager?" [Doonesbury comic strip, Feb. 10, 1999]

Alex had captured one reason for the GOP’s impeachment defeat: the American people found the Republican accusers unappealing, from the grandiloquent Henry Hyde to the smiling Bill McCollum, from the folksy Lindsey Graham to the funereal James Rogan.

But there was more to the loss than image. Enough Americans concluded that behind the moralistic rhetoric, there was hypocrisy and partisanship.

Without being told, millions of Americans understood that the whole ugly mess was really about power.

Now, the big post-impeachment question is: Will anything change?

The early answers aren't promising. Since Clinton slipped the impeachment noose with a mix of public contrition and smart lawyering, the larger story might never be told, how the Republican Right’s attack machine exploited Clinton's sexual misconduct and nearly ousted an elected president.

One need only look back at the days before the Nov. 3 election to realize that the outcome could have been very different. The Republican momentum seemed unstoppable. The congressional Democrats were resigned to major losses. The press corps was thrilled by the ratings boost that tabloid sex can bring.

Only the last line of defense in our political system, the American voters, stopped the Washington stampede. Instead of a GOP landslide, the Republicans lost five seats in the House and barely held even in the Senate.

While the Nov. 3 elections might have been a Capra-esque moment, Clinton and the Democrats still don’t seem to know how close they came to disaster -- and how much they are to blame.

From 1981 to 1993, Democrats gave the Reagan-Bush administrations passes on a string of national-security scandals: the Iran-contra affair, contra-cocaine trafficking, human rights crimes in Central America, the 1980 October Surprise case and the secret Iraqgate arming of Saddam Hussein.

The Democrats apparently thought that by averting their eyes, a bipartisan peace would come to Washington and allow constructive work on domestic policy concerns.

Instead, this accommodationist strategy -- fashioned by the likes of Tom Foley, Lee Hamilton and David Boren -- only emboldened the Republican Right. When Clinton took office, the conservative attack machine went from playing Reagan-Bush defense to anti-Clinton offense.

Yet, despite the X-rated “Monica Lewinsky” circus, Clinton still shows no commitment to enforcing the laws as they pertain to Republican crimes -- or even to correcting the historical record.

On Oct. 8, in the midst of the impeachment fight, the CIA released an inspector general's report confirming that President Reagan's contra "freedom fighters" had been up to their U.S.-supplied camo's in cocaine trafficking.

The report confirmed that Reagan's CIA had evidence implicating more than 50 contra entities. But the Reagan administration hid the evidence, lied about the contras' morality and obstructed criminal investigations.

The least one might have expected from Clinton was a White House statement spotlighting the report's release and vowing that ideological excess would never again permit drug smuggling into the United States.

If nothing else, a White House statement would have forced the story onto the front pages and given the courageous report some of the press attention that it deserved.

But Clinton kept silent, maybe hoping against hope for that elusive bipartisan peace or maybe just not caring. The report was posted onto the CIA's Web site with no notice. Even former CIA inspector general Frederick Hitz, who drafted the report, voiced surprise at how little press his findings got. [For details on the CIA report, see iF Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 1998.]

Besides correcting the historical record, facing up to the CIA's drug guilt would help in another way, by setting an example for Mexico where Clinton is demanding a purge of drug-corrupted military and political leadership. By addressing the contra-drug scandal, Clinton could lead by action, not by hypocritical rhetoric.

By pressing for the contra-cocaine truth, Clinton also would put pressure on Congress to hold serious hearings and on the national news media to confront its own poor reporting. Some editors might begin a soul-searching about what went so horribly wrong with the Washington press corps.

But most likely, no one will have the stomach -- or the spine -- for this hard work. Most likely, nothing much will change in Washington.

President Clinton will return to his policy wonkery, pending his next blunder.

The Republicans, half-heartedly, will try to show that they care about something other than impeachment.

The news media -- like some bored cat pawing at a dying mouse -- will toy with the JonBenet Ramsey mystery or other lesser stories, while waiting for Clinton's next scandal.

If the media is lucky, it will involve lots of sex.

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