Lies, Damned Lies, and Impeachment

Policy made plain.
Jan. 1 1999 3:30 AM

Lies, Damned Lies, and Impeachment

Fine. Now let's go back and impeach Reagan and Bush.

OK, so it's not about sex. It's about lying under oath, obstruction of justice, and abuse of power. If the standards used to impeach President Clinton for those offenses were applied to his two Republican predecessors, Reagan and Bush, they would have been impeached too. The fact that they weren't owes less to any lack of evidence than to a sense of proportion and respect for the popular will--or call it cowardice, perhaps--in the opposition party (the Democrats), which then controlled Congress.

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The only time Ronald Reagan ever talked about Iran-Contra under oath was in a deposition for the criminal trial of his former National Security Adviser John Poindexter. The deposition was in 1990, after Reagan had left office. He claimed that there was not "one iota" of evidence that profits from the sale of arms to Iran had been diverted to the Nicaraguan Contras, that his aides hadn't lied to Congress about the affair, and so on. All this was demonstrably false. The only reason he might not be guilty of perjury is that his mind pretty clearly was going.

But the very fact that Reagan was never forced to testify under oath as president illustrates the double standard that has trapped Bill Clinton. If Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh had operated like Kenneth Starr, he would have forced Reagan, while president, to repeat or renounce under oath his public lies about Iran-Contra, such as those in his first TV address on the subject, when he declared it "utterly false" that arms had been shipped to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages. This was as vivid as Clinton's televised finger-wagging "that woman" sound bite, and just as flatly untrue. Reagan had been at several meetings where the arms-for-hostages deal was discussed--and, indeed, where Cabinet members had warned him it was illegal and he'd said he didn't care. If Walsh had been Starr, Reagan would have faced the same excruciating dilemma as Clinton: admit to a spectacular public lie or lie again under oath.

Possibly Reagan was already gaga in 1986, while still president, though this is not an argument the Republicans now pursuing Clinton are likely to want to make (or were heard to make back in 1986). But even before he was officially declared to be losing it, Reagan benefited from a more general double standard about truth telling. Reagan and Clinton both are among the great bullshitters of American history, but somehow Reagan was always regarded as floating above the truth while Clinton is regarded as wallowing beneath it.

Walsh's final report concluded that Reagan "knowingly participated or at least acquiesced in" the Iran-Contra cover-up, which involved, among other things, Oliver North shredding thousands of documents that may well have implicated Reagan more deeply. Any Flytrap cover-up pales in comparison. (The nearest equivalent involves the mysterious appearance--not disappearance--of documents, none of which has turned out to be vital, in a White House closet.) Yet Walsh didn't bring charges against Reagan, or even depose him to squeeze out information or set him up for a perjury rap.

The case against George Bush--by the standards being applied to Bill Clinton--is even stronger. Bush claimed in the 1992 campaign that he'd given sworn testimony hundreds of times conceding that he knew all about the arms-for-hostages deal. In fact, when the story broke in 1986, Bush repeatedly claimed to have been "out of the loop." He knew we were selling arms to Iran--itself flatly illegal and spectacularly in conflict with the administration's public pronouncements--but, he claimed, he had no idea the deal involved paying ransom for hostages.

Specifically, Bush claimed not to have attended a January 1986 meeting at which Secretary of State George Schultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger vehemently opposed trading for hostages. When White House logs indicated that Bush was at the meeting, he emended his story to say he hadn't caught the drift of Schultz's and Weinberger's objections. If only he'd known George and Cap were as bothered as he was, Bush said, he would have tried to stop the policy. This was his story until 1992, when Walsh released notes taken by Weinberger at the meeting, recording that "VP approves" of the policy Bush claimed to be both ignorant of and disturbed by.

As president in 1989-93, Bush did his best to thwart Walsh's investigation. He tightened up on the release of classified information. A diary he started keeping in 1986 somehow never materialized until after the 1992 election. And his last-minute pardon of Weinberger, Poindexter, and others, after he'd lost re-election, effectively thwarted Walsh's pursuit of Bush himself, among others. No "obstruction of justice" or "abuse of presidential power" in Flytrap comes close.

So why is Bill Clinton's presidency stamped forever with the shame of impeachment, and why does he face premature removal from office, when impeachment was never seriously considered for Bush and Reagan? Perhaps at this point Clinton's critics would like to revisit their insistence that it's not about sex. The only sensible distinction is that lies about some things matter more than others. Henry Hyde, for example, was quite eloquent back in the Iran-Contra era about how statesmanship and higher principles sometimes require presidents to lie and break the law.

Hyde and others would be tempted to say that lying to free American hostages and breaking the law to protect Latin America from communism are more justified than lies to hide a tawdry affair. I would be tempted to reply that lies and cover-ups intended to thwart the workings of democracy on an important public policy issue seem to me to be a lot worse than lies about an embarrassing personal mess. But perhaps we could agree that David Schippers, the House Judiciary Committee Counsel, was wrong in his self-righteous pronouncement "Lies are lies are lies."

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