In marked contrast to the continuing Republican investigations of President
Democrats eight years ago cooperated with Republicans in shutting down substantive
inquiries that implicated President George H.W. Bush in a variety of geopolitical scandals.
At that time, the Democrats apparently felt that pursuing those inquiries
into Bush's role in
secret contacts with Iran both in 1980 and during the Iran-contra affair and getting to the
bottom of alleged CIA military support for Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the mid-1980s would
distract from the domestic policy goals at the start of the Clinton presidency.
That judgment, however, has come back to haunt the Democrats. Clearing
Bush in 1993 ironically set the stage both for the Republican scandal-mongering against
Clinton and for the restoration of the Bush family dynasty in 2000.
Certainly, the Democratic gestures of bipartisanship were not reciprocated
by the Republicans.
They opted for a pattern of aggressive politics that challenged the Clinton administration from its
first days and has continued through the 2000 Election and into the new round of investigations
of ex-President Clinton.
The Democrats have found themselves constantly on the defensive, sputtering about the unfairness of it all.
It might seem like ancient history now, but eight years ago, as the
White House was changing hands from
Bush to Clinton, there were promising opportunities for getting at the truth about the Reagan-Bush era.
Lawrence Walsh's Iran-contra investigation was still alive, although
Bush had dealt it a severe blow in
December 1992 by pardoning six Iran-contra defendants. That move blocked the Iran-contra cover-up
trial of former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and the possible incrimination of President Bush himself.
Despite that setback, Walsh's investigation had made some new breakthroughs.
had exposed details of the long-running Iran-contra cover-up. He also had learned that
Bush had withheld his personal diaries from investigators.
Walsh was pressing Bush to sit down for an interview with the special
to reconcile Bush's earlier insistence of little Iran-contra knowledge with later disclosures
revealing Bush's deeper role. Walsh had agreed to postpone that questioning during the
1992 campaign, with the understanding that Bush would submit to the interview
afterwards. But Bush was balking.
Also in December 1992, new witnesses had come forward with evidence
Reagan-Bush campaign in 1980 indeed had made secret contacts with Iran's radical
Islamic government while it was holding 52 American hostages. That hostage crisis in
1980 had eroded President Jimmy Carter's reelection support and guaranteed Reagan's victory.
Now, there was new evidence that the Republicans had been playing games
Carter's back to deny him the October Surprise of a hostage release before the election.
Privately, some of Walsh's investigators had come to believe, too, that
contacts with Iran in 1980 had been the precursor to the later Iran-contra arms sales in
1985-86. One investigator told me that otherwise the fruitless Reagan-Bush arms payoffs
to Iran in the mid-1980s made little sense.
New pieces of the 1980 puzzle had surfaced in a congressional October
that was still underway in late 1992. A detailed letter arrived from former Iranian president
Abolhassan Bani-Sadr describing the internal battles within Iran's government in 1980
about how to respond to the secret Republican initiative.
In another development, a biographer of French intelligence chief Alexandre
deMarenches testified about deMarenches's private account of secret meetings between
top Republicans and Iranians in Paris in the fall of 1980.
Perhaps, most remarkably, the Russian Supreme Soviet sent a confidential
report to the
U.S. Congress recounting what Soviet intelligence had learned while tracking the secret
Republican-Iranian negotiations in 1980. The Russians reported, too, that leading
Republicans had met with Iranians in Paris in 1980.
As Bill Clinton was about to take office, there were other lingering
questions about secret
Republican dealings with Saddam Hussein's Iraq during the 1980s. The CIA allegedly had
assisted in arranging third-country supplies of sophisticated armaments to Saddam
Hussein in his border war with Iran.
President Bush had angrily denounced such charges after they were raised
Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. But a number of witnesses were alleging that the CIA had helped
arrange the supplies, including cluster bombs to Iraq through Chile.
In 1992-93, the Democrats were in a strong position to get to the bottom
of all these
historic questions that had so entangled U.S. foreign policy in the 1980s. The Democrats
controlled both houses of Congress as well as the White House. Walsh was furious with
Bush's Iran-contra pardons and was considering impaneling a new grand jury to force
Bush's testimony. [See Walsh's book, Firewall, for more details.]
Getting answers to these questions also made policy sense, if for no
other reason than it
was important for the new administration to know where diplomatic mine fields might be
hidden in this delicate geopolitical landscape.
But the Democrats -- led by then-House Speaker Tom Foley and Rep. Lee
chose a very different course. Apparently believing that battling for answers would distract
from the domestic policy agenda, such as passage of a universal health care plan, the
Democrats chose to shut down all the investigations.
In December 1992, Foley signaled Bush that he would have no problem
Iran-contra pardons. After the pardons were issued, a few Democrats groused but no
hearings were held and no formal explanation was demanded, even though this may have
been the first time a president had used his pardon powers to protect himself from
After the Inauguration, the Clinton administration offered no help to
Walsh in arranging
declassification of documents that would have aided his investigation. When Bush refused
to submit to an interview with Walsh's prosecutors, the Democrats made not a peep about
this final move to obstruct the Iran-contra investigation.
Faced with a lack of political support, Walsh decided not to call Bush
before a grand jury
and shut down his office.
On the 1980 Iran issue, a congressional task force chose to obscure
or cover up the new
evidence of Republican guilt. Bani-Sadr's letter was misrepresented in the task force's
report as mere speculation. Bani-Sadr's detailed account of the interplay inside the
Iranian government was simply ignored.
Only those who bothered to dig through the task force report's appendix
could find out
what the Iranian president had actually said. Not a single story about Bani-Sadr's letter
appeared in major newspapers.
In an odd twist, the task force accepted the testimony about deMarenches's
Republicans meeting Iranians in Paris as "credible," but then incongruously dismissed it
as irrelevant, since it conflicted with Republican denials.
The extraordinary Russian report describing what Soviet intelligence
files had shown about the
Republican-Iran initiative was simply hidden. There was no serious follow-up with the Russians
to determine how solid their intelligence was and how they had obtained the information.
The Russian report itself was not mentioned in the final task force
report, nor was its
existence disclosed at a news conference unveiling the bipartisan congressional findings
that cleared the Republicans of all wrongdoing in January 1993.
The Russian report was stuck in a storage room on Capitol Hill where
I found it in 1994. A
story about its contents appeared at this Web site in 1995, but its existence has never
been reported by anyone else.
[For a more detailed summary of Bani-Sadr's letter, the deMarenches
account and the
Russian report, see a story about the report's author, former Russian Prime Minister
Sergei Stepashin. For more on the congressional task force, see Robert Parry's book,
Trick or Treason, or the October Surprise X-Files series at this Web site.]
Unexplored avenues of the 1980 investigation such as alleged Republican
use of the
Palestine Liberation Organization to contact Iran were never followed. [In 1996, however,
PLO leader Yasir Arafat personally told former President Carter that the Republicans had
approached the PLO as potential emissaries to Iran in 1980, a fact that appeared in
Diplomatic History, fall 1996, and in our writings, but again no where else.]
As for the secret Republican-Iraqi ties, those too were buried by the
administration. In 1995, when a Reagan national security appointee, Howard Teicher,
submitted a sworn affidavit describing the CIA's secret operation to supply Saddam
Hussein's Iraq with cluster bombs through Chile just as earlier witnesses had alleged
Justice Department lawyers attacked Teicher's credibility. They forced him to back away
from his affidavit, which had been submitted in connection with a criminal case in Florida.
Beyond obscuring these important chapters of recent history and thus
adding to the
confusion of the American people, the Democrats discovered that their deferential
strategy gained them nothing from the Republicans. If anything, the Democratic behavior
was taken as a sign of weakness.
After the Democrats folded the Reagan-Bush investigations, the Republicans
swept their easy winnings off the table and raised the stakes.
In early 1993, Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., informed President Clinton that
would oppose every part of his economic plan a threat they backed up with unanimous
GOP blocs against Clinton's budget proposals, which survived solely with Democratic votes.
Republicans also helped turn Clinton's ambitious health-care plan into a fiasco.
Beyond that, the Republicans used the bipartisan findings of Reagan-Bush
attack and isolate news organizations and investigators who had pressed for full
disclosure. PBS Frontline, which had recruited me to examine the 1980 Iran hostage
case, came under fire for taking seriously a "baseless conspiracy theory." The
once-courageous documentary program began trimming its sails and tacking more
toward pro-Republican positions to help protect PBS's government funding.
Middle East expert Gary Sick, who had judged the 1980 allegations credible,
denounced and effectively blacklisted from returning to a position in government. Rep.
Henry Gonzalez, D-Texas, who had championed the Iraqi arms investigation, was left high
and dry, looking like an eccentric old man.
By undercutting Walsh, the Democrats gave the Republicans more ammunition
chose to use the special-prosecutor apparatus in partisan warfare against Clinton.
Though Walsh was himself a conservative Republican, he was transformed in the fuzzy
minds of the Washington pundit class into a partisan Democrat who thus justified the
appointment of partisan Republicans to run the investigations of Clinton and his aides.
The consequences inside the mainstream media also were damaging. Reporters
had taken the Reagan-Bush side in these controversies of the 1980s were rewarded
when those investigations were deemed to be baseless. These pro-Reagan-Bush
reporters got promoted while reporters who had pushed for thorough investigations
were marginalized as "liberals" or "conspiracy theorists."
By the time, the Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994 and
stepped up their
investigations of the Clinton administration, the national press corps had few voices left
willing to stand in the path of a conservative-driven stampede.
Increasingly through the 1990s, the national media could be viewed
as having two primary
parts. One was a relentless conservative media from Rupert Murdoch's Fox News to Rev.
Sun Myung Moon's Washington Times, from the talk radio world of Rush Limbaugh and G.
Gordon Liddy to the racks full of hard-right magazines, such as the American Spectator
and the Weekly Standard, from the Christian right TV to the Wall Street Journal's editorial
page, from conservative newspaper columnists to TV pundits.
The other part of the media was the mainstream press that was owned
bottom-line-oriented corporations and staffed by journalists who understood that their
careers were best promoted by avoiding the tag "liberal." These journalists had learned
the lessons of the 1980s and recognized that there was no danger in tilting their reporting
to the right. There also were real benefits in reporters proving that they were not liberal,
by being especially hard on Democrats.
There was also a tiny "leftist" media The Nation, Mother Jones, In These
Times, etc. Many
of these leftist publications and their commentators despised Clinton because of his New
Democrat policies and thus ended up on the same side as the conservatives in attacking
his administration, though for different reasons.
This media imbalance ensured that every Clinton administration mistake,
no matter how petty,
would be seized on as a major "scandal" with congressional hearings, media breast-beating and
appointments of special prosecutors - while conversely there would be no interest in reexamining
any of the Reagan-Bush scandals from the 1980s.
Clinton’ sloppy Whitewater real estate investment, therefore, became
the subject of nearly
eight years of investigations, with side trips into such trivial matters as the Travel Office
firings and the mistaken delivery of FBI files to the White House - none of which led to any
charges related to the actions of Bill or Hillary Clinton.
Conservatives and some leftist journalists also promoted bogus allegations
that White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster had been murdered, though investigation
after investigation found his death to be an obvious suicide. The right-wing attack machine
added to the clouds of suspicion by distributing lists of so-called "mysterious deaths"
pinned on Clinton.
Stepping back and viewing this process in its totality, the "Clinton
scandals" had the look
of a CIA-style "black propaganda" operation. Just as false or exaggerated charges were
planted against U.S. adversaries in Guatemala in the 1950s or in Chile in the 1970s or in
Nicaraguan in the 1980s, now those tactics were turned against an American president.
The right-wing attack machine’ most notable success was in funding Paula
Jones as she
lodged dubious - and shifting - claims against Clinton for allegedly exposing himself to her
as a come-on. Although lacking legal merit - the case eventually was rejected by a
Republican judge in Arkansas - the Paula Jones case enabled conservative lawyers to
corner Clinton with questions about his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
At that point, Clinton lied, trying to keep the relationship secret.
His deception -
compounded by his finger-waving denial on national television - handed the Republicans
their ultimate victory in discrediting this Democratic president.
Though Clinton survived impeachment, his reputation was permanently
sullied. The public’s
displeasure with Clinton’ personal behavior also damaged Vice President Gore’s
campaign to succeed his boss.
Saving George W.
Ironically, the Democratic strategy of taking dives on the scandals
of the 1980s came
back to whack the party another way.
Having protected the reputation of President George H.W. Bush in 1993,
the Democrats found
themselves faced with the strong candidacy of Bush’ son, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, whose
principal qualification - arguably his only qualification - was the honorable reputation of his father.
In veiled references to the so-called "Clinton squalor," Gov. Bush promised
"honor and dignity" to the White House. Because of the decisions made eight years earlier,
the Democrats had no effective response to this Bush campaign pledge. They simply hoped
that the American people would not punish Gore for Clinton’ personal misdeeds.
By the late 1990s, however, the national news media recognized only
one currency for
framing scandals: they had to be Clinton-Gore stories, even if the evidence pointed in a
very different direction. So when the Chinese espionage scandal broke in spring 1999,
the media framed it as another Clinton-Gore scandal, although the facts were that
the key U.S. nuclear secrets had been lost in the mid-1980s.
Similarly, as Campaign 2000 began, the media transformed Gore - a staid,
serious public servant
- into a pathological liar who lived in a world of his own delusions. Often, this disqualifying image was
based on false or highly distorted reading of the facts. Gore, for instance, was frequently quoted as
having claimed to have "invented" the Internet, when he never made that claim.
In another situation, major newspapers wrote that Gore had claimed credit
for discovering the
Love Canal toxic waste problem. Gore supposedly had said, "I was the one that started it all."
Actually, Gore had been referring to a similar toxic waste case in Toone, Tenn., and had said,
"That was the one that started it all."
Only grudging corrections were made by the news media, often in the
context of making
new accusations about other supposed exaggerations. The journalists responsible for this
inept reporting appeared to suffer no adverse consequences. They were still covering the
campaign as it ended.
Some Republicans have cited their success in tagging Gore as a liar
- and thus linking
Gore to Clinton’ deception about Lewinsky - as crucial in making the 2000 election competitive.
The media imbalance proved critical on Election Night and the days that
followed. A key
turning point in the election occurred when The Associated Press and other news
organization involved in exit polling determined that Al Gore was the choice of Florida
voters. The loss of Florida seemed to doom George W. Bush’ hopes.
In an unusual Election Night scene, however, Bush summoned a news crew
to the room where
he was watching the returns with family members. Bush challenged the exit poll results in Florida
and the news media quickly backpedaled on its "mistake" in calling Florida for Gore.
By early morning, Fox News, working with a Bush cousin, flipped the
call and gave Florida
to Bush, with enough electoral votes to put Bush over the top for the presidency. Other
news outlets followed. Though the networks also retreated from that call, voters turning on
the television sets on Nov. 8 had the impression that Bush had won the presidency and
that it was time for Gore to concede.
In the five weeks that followed, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his subordinates
certify Florida’ electoral votes for his brother while Republican operatives did all they could
to stop a thorough recount that appeared likely to give Gore a Florida victory.
On Nov. 22, Republican hooligans charged the offices of the Miami-Dade
board where a recount was starting. With the Republicans pounding on the doors, the
canvassing board reversed itself and stopped the recount. The media treated the reversal
as a victory for Bush, with little outrage over the strong-arm tactics.
The next night, these Republican activists - many recruited from GOP
congressional staffs in
Washington - celebrated at a Ft. Lauderdale hotel and received a thankful telephone call from
Bush and Cheney, according to the Wall Street Journal. With few exceptions, the media showed
little interest in this strange scene of a would-be president and vice-president thanking rioters.
Meanwhile, Gore reined in his supporters and concentrated on the courts.
On Dec. 8, Gore seemed
to be rewarded for this confidence when the Florida Supreme Court ordered a statewide recount of
ballots that had been rejected by machine tabulations. The recount began on Dec. 9, with canvassing
boards discovering scores of clearly marked ballots that had been rejected.
The Bush team, however, was determined to halt the count. Its first
attempt with the
conservative federal appeals court in Atlanta was rebuffed, but Bush’ lawyers had better luck
with five conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court. In an unprecedented act in American history,
the five justices stopped the counting of votes in a U.S. presidential election.
Three days later, on Dec. 12, the same five justices prevented a resumption
counting and handed the presidency to Bush. Despite the brazen power play, most major
media again handled the story primarily as a Bush victory and a Gore defeat.
More than anything, the media seemed to crave normalcy, and that was
interpreted as a
restoration of Bush rule. Gore’ half-million-vote-plus victory in the national popular vote
was treated as an irrelevance.
The eight years of Clinton-bashing weren’ over either. As Clinton left
the White House, he,
too, seemed to have learned little about the rules of engagement in this new age of
His decision to pardon fugitive commodities trader Mark Rich raised
questions about Clinton’ penchant for "feeling the pain" of his wealthy contributors. But
Clinton did have more defensible reasons for pardoning Rich, including appeals from
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and a former Mossad director who had worked with
Rich on Middle East peace initiatives.
Nevertheless, the Republicans saw another opportunity to drive up Clinton’
They twinned the Rich pardon flap with exaggerated claims about Democrats vandalizing
the White House before they left. The strong impression to the public was that George W.
Bush indeed had arrived to restore "honor and dignity" to the White House.
Clinton complained in one interview that he had been "blind-sided."
fumed about the Bush success in hyping the vandalism allegations. [See The Washington
Post, Feb. 18, 2001] But the tactics should not have come as any surprise.
As they had for almost a decade, the Democrats let the Republicans determine
situations deserved investigations and which ones didn’t. While Republicans conducted
new hearings on Clinton’ pardons - a contrast to the lack of hearings on George H.W.
Bush’ Iran-contra pardons in 1992 - the Democrats made no move to force an
investigation of the GOP power plays around the Florida recount.
The only congressional hearing on the Florida case was called by Republicans
- and that
was for the Orwellian purpose of having news executives explain why their "erroneous"
projections had shown Al Gore to be the voters’choice in Florida.
Though the Democrats have the right to demand hearings in the evenly
split Senate, they
appeared to have no stomach for confrontational hearings about the Florida showdown,
clearly one of the most important political events in recent U.S. history.
Thanks to this Democratic timidity, no Republican has been called on
the carpet for
dispatching hooligans to south Florida. No conservative Supreme Court justice has been
compelled to justify the unprecedented interference in the electoral process that meant
negating more than 50 million votes cast by American citizens for Al Gore.
None of Jeb Bush’ aides has been hauled before Congress to explain how
African-American voters apparently were purged from voting lists based on an inaccurate
computer program for eliminating supposed felons.
Having retreated so far and so often, today’s Democrats seem incapable
of fighting back.
It is a pattern of behavior that - as much as anything - has made the Republicans the
dominant political force in Washington and left American democracy in an endangered state.
****Robert Parry is an investigative reporter who broke many of the
Iran-contra stories in
the 1980s for The Associated Press and Newsweek.