Presidents all the same when scandal strikes
By Bob Barr
Two of the most powerful moments of political déjà vu I have ever experienced took place recently in the context of the Bush administration's defense of presidentially ordered electronic spying on American citizens.
First, in the best tradition of former President Bill Clinton's classic, "it-all-depends-on-what-the-meaning-of-is-is" defense, President Bush responded to a question at a White House news conference about what now appears to be a clear violation of federal electronic monitoring laws by trying to argue that he had not ordered the National Security Agency to "monitor" phone and e-mail communications of American citizens without court order; he had merely ordered them to "detect" improper communications.
This example of presidential phrase parsing was followed quickly by the president's press secretary, Scott McLellan, dead-panning to reporters that when Bush said a couple of years ago that he would never allow the NSA to monitor Americans without a court order, what he really meant was something different than what he actually said. If McLellan's last name had been McCurry, and the topic an illicit relationship with a White House intern rather than illegal spying on American citizens, I could have easily been listening to a White House news conference at the height of the Clinton impeachment scandal.
On foreign policy, domestic issues, relationships with Congress, and even their selection of White House Christmas cards and china patterns, presidents are as different as night and day. But when caught with a hand in the cookie jar and their survival called into question, administrations circle the wagons, fall back on time-worn but often effective defense mechanisms, and seamlessly morph into one another.
First, we get a president bobbing and weaving like Muhammad Ali. He knows he can't really tell the truth and he knows he can't rely only on lies. The resulting dilemma leads him to veer from unintelligible muttering to attempts to distract, and then to chest-beating bravado and attacks on his accusers.
Soon, he begins taking trips abroad and appearing at the White House podium with foreign leaders with minimal command of English, allowing him to duck for cover whenever scandal questions arise.
Of course, the president can't carry the entire stonewalling burden alone. The next actors to enter the stage typically are the president's press secretary and the White House counsel's office. Serious scandals tend to spawn congressional investigations and independent counsels. As Clinton quickly learned, and Richard Nixon before him, the best way to short-circuit such endeavors is to force the investigators and lawyers to fight like dogs for every inch of ground they get.
By using the White House counsel's office to bury investigators in a sea of motions, pleadings and memoranda, an administration can drag out an investigation to the point of exhaustion. By the time the investigation actually slogs through this legal maze to bring real charges or issue a report, the courts, public and media are so sick and tired of hearing about it that the final charges fall stillborn from the press.
A critical component of White House Scandal Defense 101 is rallying the partisan base. This keeps approval ratings in territory where the wheels don't start falling off. The way to achieve this goal is you go negative and you don't let up. If you're always attacking your accusers, the debate becomes one of Democrat vs. Republican, rather than right vs. wrong. Anyone who questions the legality of the decision to wiretap thousands of Americans unlawfully is attacked, as either an enabler of terrorists or a bitter partisan trying to distract a president at war.
Yet another tactic is to shore up your congressional base in order to avoid or at least control pesky oversight investigations. A president's job here is made far easier if his party maintains a majority in one or both houses. Even if your party doesn't enjoy control of either the House or the Senate, you can still achieve your desired goal, as did Clinton — America's master scandal handler. You've just got to work harder at it.
The signs are everywhere that the Bush White House is busily implementing all parts of this defense strategy. It would be refreshing if it decided to clear the air and actually be honest about its post-Sept. 11 surveillance. However, that's unlikely. The problem this president faces, as did his predecessors, is that full disclosure would lead to the remedy stage. No president wants to fight that end-game.