The Clintons' Real Trouble with Truth
Hollywood mogul David Geffen touched a raw nerve with Hillary Clinton when he told New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd that “everybody in politics lies, but they [the Clintons] do it with such ease, it’s troubling.”
The Clintons’ trouble with truth, however, is not just the petty political lying nor is it their quibbling over what “is is” or what “mistake” means. It’s that they have never shown any real reverence for the truth. Too often, they see it as something to be traded away for a transitory tactical advantage.
If a future historian is ever to understand what happened to the United States in this era – how the world’s greatest power so disastrously lost its way – that scholar should look back to the first Clinton-Bush transition in 1992-93, when Bill Clinton could have grasped a unique historical moment but didn’t.
Clinton was the first U.S. President to take office after the end of the Cold War. He could have ordered a long-needed historical review of what nine U.S. presidents had done, often behind opaque cloaks of government secrecy.
This review also could have assessed what damage those decades of secrecy, propaganda and deception had done to the core values of the American Republic. By revealing the truth, both the good and the bad, Clinton could have helped restore vibrancy to the democratic process by giving the voters the means to again be an informed electorate.
Yet, even if Clinton didn’t want to spend the political capital that creation of a grand truth commission might have required, he still could have cooperated with three key investigations that were underway at the end of 1992.
Special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh was still battling the cover-up that had surrounded the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s; Democratic congressmen were digging into the “Iraqgate” scandal, the covert supplying of dangerous weapons to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the 1980s; and a House task force was suddenly inundated with evidence pointing to Republican guilt in the “October Surprise” case, alleged interference by the Reagan-Bush campaign in 1980 to undermine President Jimmy Carter’s efforts to free 52 American hostages then held in Iran.
Combined, those three investigations could have rewritten the history of the 1980s, exposing serious wrongdoing by Republicans who had held the White House for a dozen years. The full story also would likely have terminated the presidential ambitions of the powerful Bush family, since George H.W. Bush was implicated in all three scandals.
After winning in November 1992, however, Bill Clinton and the leaders of the Democratic majorities in Congress didn’t care enough about the truth to fight for it. Heeding advice from influential fixers like Vernon Jordan, Clinton and the congressional Democrats turned their backs on those investigations.
Clinton agreed to let George H.W. Bush retreat gracefully into retirement despite Bush’s brazen attempt to destroy Walsh’s criminal investigation by issuing six pardons to Iran-Contra defendants on Christmas Eve 1992.
In his 2004 memoirs, My Life, Clinton wrote that he “disagreed with the pardons and could have made more of them but didn’t.” Clinton cited several reasons for giving his predecessor a pass.
“I wanted the country to be more united, not more divided, even if that split would be to my political advantage,” Clinton wrote. “Finally, President Bush had given decades of service to our country, and I thought we should allow him to retire in peace, leaving the matter between him and his conscience.”
By his choice of words, Clinton revealed how he saw information – not something that belonged to the American people and that had intrinsic value to the democratic process – but as a potential weapon that could be put to “political advantage.”
On the Iran-Contra pardons, Clinton saw himself as magnanimously passing up this club that he could have wielded to bludgeon an adversary. He chose instead to join in a cover-up in the name of national unity, presumably with the hope of some reciprocity from the Republicans when his own secrets might need sweeping under the rug.
Similarly, the Democratic congressional leadership ignored the flood of incriminating evidence pouring into the “October Surprise” task force in December 1992.
Chief counsel Lawrence Barcella urged task force chairman Lee Hamilton to extend the investigation several months to examine this new evidence of Republican guilt, but Hamilton ordered Barcella simply to wrap the probe up.
Some of that evidence – including an unprecedented report from the Russian government about its knowledge of illicit Republican contacts with Iran – was simply hidden away in boxes that I discovered two years later and dubbed “The October Surprise X-Files.”
The “Iraqgate” investigation met a similar fate under the Clinton administration, as evidence of covert shipments of dangerous war materiel to Saddam Hussein in the 1980s was ignored or treated with disdain.
When former Reagan administration official Howard Teicher came forward with an affidavit describing secret U.S.-backed arms shipments to Iraq, Clinton officials went on the offensive – against Teicher, bullying him into silence.
Clinton seemed so determined to prove his mettle to the insider crowd in Washington, as a guy who knew how to keep the secrets, that his cover-ups of Reagan-Bush-era misdeeds were almost as aggressive as those mounted by the Republicans when they held the White House. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
Early in Clinton’s presidency, I approached then-deputy White House chief of staff John Podesta and other senior officials to ask about their plans for pursuing important historical investigations that had been left undone in 1993. I was told those issues simply weren’t “on the radar scopes.”
However, if Clinton thought that his collaboration in keeping the Reagan-Bush secrets from the American people would earn him a measure of protection from Republicans, he was mistaken.
Freed from having to defend Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, right-wing media outlets went on the attack against Clinton, seizing on petty issues like his Whitewater real estate deal and launching endless investigations designed to cripple his presidency.
Only during his second term did Clinton agree to declassify limited quantities of Cold War records, such as those pertaining to the brutal U.S.-supported counterinsurgency campaigns in Guatemala. A Guatemalan truth commission had requested the documents, which revealed U.S. complicity in genocide against Mayan Indians in the 1980s.
But Bill Clinton never ordered a major declassification project, nor did he establish any U.S. truth commissions to put the Cold War history in a meaningful context. To Clinton, truth never seemed to be a high priority, either in his private life or in his public duties.
Ironically, Bill Clinton’s protection of the Reagan-Bush administrations didn’t protect him. Clinton saw his prized domestic agenda, including Hillary Clinton’s health care reform, defeated; his party lose control of Congress in 1994; the House vote to impeach him; and his Vice President, Al Gore, have the 2000 election stolen from him.
Then, once the Bush family again controlled the White House, one of the first acts of the new President, George W. Bush, was to sign an executive order ensuring that Reagan-Bush-era historical records, scheduled for release in 2001, stayed locked up, possibly forever.
Based on this pattern of events, it could be said that Republicans value the power of information – even as they work to hide or distort it – while Democrats may say they appreciate reality but then act as if truth were a mere chip to be bargained cheaply away.
David Geffen may not have had Bill Clinton's sacrifice of historical truth in mind when he chastised the Clintons for their ease with political lying. The direct context of his remark was President Clinton’s decision before leaving office in 2001 to forego a pardon for American Indian activist Leonard Peltier while granting one to international businessman Marc Rich.
“Marc Rich getting pardoned? An oil-profiteer expatriate who left the country rather than pay taxes or face justice?” Geffen fumed in his interview with Maureen Dowd. “Yet another time when the Clintons were unwilling to stand for the things that they genuinely believe in. Everybody in politics lies, but they do it with such ease, it’s troubling.” [NYT, Feb. 21, 2007]
While Geffen's remark may have been harsh, it does appear to be the case that the Clintons value truth only to the degree that it doesn’t require them to show political courage.
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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