November 13, 2000
Who Should Concede?
The Senior Bush
The Nixonian strategies carried over into the campaigns mounted by George H.W. Bush in 1988 and 1992. The elder Bush's dark side came out most glaringly when he was in what he called “campaign mode.”
The general election campaign against Michael Dukakis in 1988 stands as one of the nastiest in U.S. history, with Bush playing the race card by exploiting Willie Horton, a black inmate who raped a white woman while he was on a Massachusetts prison furlough.
Bush charted a similar course in 1992, with the goal of destroying Bill Clinton’s reputation and winning re-election by political default. The strategy, managed by then-White House chief of staff James Baker, involved searching Clinton's passport files looking for dirt to use against the Democratic candidate.
Documents at the National Archives show that Bush was personally involved in this "silver bullet" strategy aimed at portraying Clinton as disloyal to his country or even a pawn of Soviet bloc intelligence.
In an interview with federal prosecutors, Bush acknowledged that he was "nagging" his aides to press a sensitive investigation into Clinton's student travels to the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. Bush also expressed strong interest in rumors that Clinton had sought to renounce his U.S. citizenship.
Bush then described himself as "indignant" that his aides failed to discover more about Clinton's student activities. But Bush stopped short of taking responsibility for the apparently illegal searches of Clinton's passport records.
"Hypothetically speaking, President Bush advised that he would not have directed anyone to investigate the possibility that Clinton had renounced his citizenship because he would have relied on others to make this decision," the FBI interview report read. "He [Bush] would have said something like, 'Let's get it out' or 'Hope the truth gets out'."
The documents depict President Bush as raging, Nixon-like, about political enemies, demanding action and then counting on his subordinates to ignore some of his more outrageous ideas. When the subordinates didn't and a political crisis followed, Bush coolly distanced himself from the fallout.
But the documentary record now makes clear that Bush was the driving force behind this search for a “silver bullet” to destroy Bill Clinton. [For more details, see Bush Family Politics.]
When the passport caper backfired in early October 1992 with disclosure of the State Department search, the Bush campaign suffered one of its rare setbacks. Some inside the Bush administration, including James Baker, saw the scandal as an element in Bush's eventual defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton.
After the election, more disclosures prompted calls for a special prosecutor. Fearing a spreading scandal, a distraught Baker contacted Bush on Nov. 16. According to Bush's diary, Baker was "worried that it's going to end up on his door step."
Though the Washington Establishment held Baker in high regard, Baker had been implicated in another famous electoral dirty trick, the purloining of President Carter's debate briefing book during the 1980 campaign.
Increasingly nervous, Baker tried to submit a letter of resignation on Nov. 20, but Bush refused to accept it. "Jim Baker came in here this morning about 10:30 deeply disturbed and read to me a long letter of resignation all because of this stupid passport situation," Bush wrote in his diary.
When a special prosecutor was named, the Bush administration was lucky because Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist had ousted a moderate Republican, Judge George MacKinnon, who had picked Lawrence Walsh to investigate the Iran-contra scandal.
Rehnquist had replaced MacKinnon with U.S. Appeals Court Judge David Sentelle, one of President Reagan's conservative judicial appointees and a protégé of Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C. Sentelle recruited a fellow Reagan appointee, former U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova, to act as the independent counsel.
DiGenova's investigation confirmed many of the facts of the case, but it ultimately cleared the Bush administration of wrongdoing. Although the evidence once more pointed to a Republican effort to use illegal means to influence the outcome of a presidential election, the Democrats again acquiesced to a finding of Republican innocence.
The Danger of False History
Over the past 40 years, what has emerged from these complementary tendencies – the Nixon/Republican strategy of hardball politics and the Democrats’ desire to avoid confrontations – is something akin to an abusive marriage in which one party harms the other but is forever excused amid rationales about what is good for the family.
While the Democrats may view their complicity in concealing these Republican political crimes as “good for the country,” the pattern has not contributed to an informed electorate, the bedrock of any healthy democracy.
Today’s developments around the stalemated Gore-Bush election are an indication of how dangerous false history can be. Pundits, politicians and pop historians are applying a sanitized history to the present as a way of making judgments about what should be done.
Based on this false history, rank-and-file Republicans feel put upon and ready for revenge. Even some Democrats have bought into the notion that it's their turn to make concessions and let Gov. Bush take the White House, even though he lost the popular vote.
The Bush campaign seems also to have benefited from the media's extraordinarily short memory. Pre-election Bush plans to challenge the outcome -- if Bush won the popular vote and lost the Electoral College -- were forgotten, when the election turned out differently, with Bush losing the popular vote and hoping to scratch together enough electoral votes to win.
[For details, see The GOP's Popular Vote Hypocricy.]
Ironically, though, many of the players in the current dispute have knowledge of the secret history. Warren Christopher, who is heading the Gore campaign's recount effort in Florida, was a principal State Department official during the 1980 Iranian hostage crisis. As a senator, Gore himself took an interest in that issue.
On the Republican side, James Baker was a top adviser to the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign and was personally implicated in the theft of President Carter's debate book. Baker also was connected to the Passportgate affair in 1992.
While this crisscrossing secret history might never fully penetrate the public’s awareness – given the general ineptitude of the national news media – the people should know something about it.
Contrary to what they may have read, the Republicans do not have a record of graciously accepting political defeat. Nor can it be fairly argued that it is the Democrats’ turn to do “what’s good for the country” and submit.
Ultimately, what might be best for the United States is to let the American people in on the secret history of the past 40 years: how we really select our presidents.
Robert Parry is an investigative reporter who broke many of the Iran-contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek.