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Democrats, the Truth Still Matters!

By Robert Parry
(First Posted May 11, 2006)

Editor's Note: With the Democratic victories in the House and Senate, there is finally the opportunity to demand answers from the Bush administration about important questions, ranging from Dick Cheney's secret energy policies to George W. Bush's Iraq War deceptions. But the Democrats are sure to be tempted to put the goal of "bipartisanship" ahead of the imperative for truth.

Democrats, being Democrats, always want to put governance, such as enacting legislation and building coalitions, ahead of oversight, which often involves confrontation and hard feelings. Democrats have a difficult time understanding why facts about past events matter when there are problems in the present and challenges in the future.

Given that proclivity, we are re-posting a story from last May that examined why President Bill Clinton and the last Democratic congressional majority (in 1993-94) shied away from a fight over key historical scandals from the Reagan-Bush-I years -- and the high price the Democrats paid for that decision:

My book, Secrecy & Privilege, opens with a scene in spring 1994 when a guest at a White House social event asks Bill Clinton why his administration didn’t pursue unresolved scandals from the Reagan-Bush era, such as the Iraqgate secret support for Saddam Hussein’s government and clandestine arms shipments to Iran.

Clinton responds to the questions from the guest, documentary filmmaker Stuart Sender, by saying, in effect, that those historical questions had to take a back seat to Clinton’s domestic agenda and his desire for greater bipartisanship with the Republicans.

Clinton “didn’t feel that it was a good idea to pursue these investigations because he was going to have to work with these people,” Sender told me in an interview. “He was going to try to work with these guys, compromise, build working relationships.”

Clinton’s relatively low regard for the value of truth and accountability is relevant again today because other centrist Democrats are urging their party to give George W. Bush’s administration a similar pass if the Democrats win one or both houses of Congress.

Reporting about a booklet issued by the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank of the Democratic Leadership Council, the Washington Post wrote, “these centrist Democrats … warned against calls to launch investigations into past administration decisions if Democrats gain control of the House or Senate in the November elections.”

These Democrats also called on the party to reject its “non-interventionist left” wing, which opposed the Iraq War and which wants Bush held accountable for the deceptions that surrounded it.

“Many of us are disturbed by the calls for investigations or even impeachment as the defining vision for our party for what we would do if we get back into office,” said pollster Jeremy Rosner, calling such an approach backward-looking. [Washington Post, May 10, 2006]

Yet, before Democrats endorse the DLC’s don’t-look-back advice, they might want to examine the consequences of Clinton’s decision in 1993-94 to help the Republicans sweep the Reagan-Bush scandals under the rug. Most of what Clinton hoped for – bipartisanship and support for his domestic policies – never materialized.

‘Politicized’ CIA

After winning Election 1992, Clinton also rebuffed appeals from members of the U.S. intelligence community to reverse the Reagan-Bush “politicization” of the CIA’s analytical division by rebuilding the ethos of objective analysis even when it goes against a President’s desires. [See Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]

Instead, in another accommodating gesture, Clinton gave the CIA director’s job to right-wing Democrat, James Woolsey, who had close ties to the Reagan-Bush administration and especially to its neoconservatives.

One senior Democrat told me Clinton picked Woolsey as a reward to the neocon-leaning editors of the New Republic for backing Clinton in Election 1992.

“I told [Clinton’s national security team] that the New Republic hadn’t brought them enough votes to win a single precinct,” the senior Democrat said. “But they kept saying that they owed this to the editors of the New Republic.”

During his tenure at the CIA, Woolsey did next to nothing to address the CIA’s “politicization” issue, intelligence analysts said. Woolsey also never gained Clinton’s confidence and – after several CIA scandals – was out of the job by January 1995.

At the time of that White House chat with Stuart Sender, Clinton thought that his see-no-evil approach toward the Reagan-Bush era would give him an edge in fulfilling his campaign promise to “focus like a laser beam” on the economy.

He was taking on other major domestic challenges, too, like cutting the federal deficit and pushing a national health insurance plan developed by First Lady Hillary Clinton.

So for Clinton, learning the truth about controversial deals between the Reagan-Bush crowd and the autocratic governments of Iraq and Iran just wasn’t on the White House radar screen. Clinton also wanted to grant President George H.W. Bush a gracious exit.

“I wanted the country to be more united, not more divided,” Clinton explained in his 2004 memoir, My Life. “President Bush had given decades of service to our country, and I thought we should allow him to retire in peace, leaving the (Iran-Contra) matter between him and his conscience.”

Unexpected Results

Clinton’s generosity to George H.W. Bush and the Republicans, of course, didn’t turn out as he had hoped. Instead of bipartisanship and reciprocity, he was confronted with eight years of unrelenting GOP hostility, attacks on both his programs and his personal reputation.

Later, as tensions grew in the Middle East, the American people and even U.S. policymakers were flying partially blind, denied anything close to the full truth about the history of clandestine relationships between the Reagan-Bush team and hostile nations in the Middle East.

Clinton’s failure to expose that real history also led indirectly to the restoration of Bush Family control of the White House in 2001. Despite George W. Bush’s inexperience as a national leader, he drew support from many Americans who remembered his father’s presidency fondly.

If the full story of George H.W. Bush’s role in secret deals with Iraq and Iran had ever been made public, the Bush Family’s reputation would have been damaged to such a degree that George W. Bush’s candidacy would not have been conceivable.

Not only did Clinton inadvertently clear the way for the Bush restoration, but the Right’s political ascendancy wiped away much of the Clinton legacy, including a balanced federal budget and progress on income inequality. A poorly informed American public also was easily misled on what to do about U.S. relations with Iraq and Iran.

In retrospect, Clinton’s tolerance of Reagan-Bush cover-ups was a lose-lose-lose – the public was denied information it needed to understand dangerous complexities in the Middle East, George W. Bush built his presidential ambitions on the nation’s fuzzy memories of his dad, and Republicans got to enact a conservative agenda.

Clinton’s approach also reflected a lack of appreciation for the importance of truth in a democratic Republic. If the American people are expected to do their part in making sure democracy works, they need to be given at least a chance of being an informed electorate.

Yet, Clinton – and now some pro-Iraq War Democrats – view truth as an expendable trade-off when measured against political tactics or government policies. In reality, accurate information about important events is the lifeblood of democracy.

Though sometimes the truth can hurt, Clinton and the Democrats should understand that covering up the truth can hurt even more. As Clinton’s folly with the Reagan-Bush scandals should have taught, the Democrats may hurt themselves worst of all when helping the Republicans cover up the truth.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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