November 6, 1998

Clinton vs. the Establishment

By Robert Parry

On the eve of the 1998 elections, The Washington Post published a story by society journalist Sally Quinn, seeking to explain why Washington's Establishment was as determined as Kenneth Starr to punish President Clinton over the Lewinsky case.

The lengthy Style-section article argued that the Washington "insiders" were angrier than most Americans because Clinton had soiled "their home" and had violated a sort of Washington tribal code by dishonoring the White House. [WP, Nov. 2, 1998]

Taking little note of the many sex scandals and crimes of state that had preceded Clinton to the White House, Quinn wrote that "Washington has been brought into disrepute by the actions of the president."

By contrast, Quinn viewed Washington's clan of insiders as some national treasure of principle, probity and purity, a meritocracy responsible for the nation's moral welfare.

"It's a community of good people involved in a worthwhile pursuit," stated ABC's Cokie Roberts. "We think being a worthwhile public servant or journalist matters."

Self-absorption aside, the story helped explain a mystery of the Clinton years: why he has inspired a relentless hostility from the Establishment since he arrived in Washington in 1993. Despite his Ivy League credentials and his eagerness to please, Clinton has remained one of the most "outsider" of presidents.

Most White House occupants quickly enter the Washington Establishment simply because of their immense power -- even though some presidents strike populist poses for the benefit of the voters.

Ronald Reagan, for instance, was welcomed by the Establishment, led by Washington Post matriarch Katharine Graham, even as he lambasted Washington as corrupt and liberal.

Other presidents had an even easier time. John F. Kennedy might have been the ultimate "insider" president, beloved for his style and protected for his indiscretions. But Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford and George Bush made the grade, too.

Richard Nixon was possibly the most notorious "outsider" president. Still, some Nixon men, particularly Henry Kissinger, charmed their way into the good graces of the Georgetown "cave dwellers."

Jimmy Carter was another president who failed to win insider acceptance. He was seen as too moralistic and preachy.

Still, Clinton is a special case. He got a double whammy: first, from the conservative attack apparatus which aggressively investigated his private life, and second, from the centrist Establishment which looked down its nose at him as an overly ambitious bumpkin from Arkansas.

Quinn traced the Establishment's grievances with Clinton back to a perceived insult delivered during Clinton's first inaugural address in 1993.

In the speech, the new president described the capital as "a place of intrigue and calculation [where] powerful people maneuver for position and worry endlessly about who is in and who is out, who is up and who is down, forgetting those people whose toil and sweat sends us here and pays our way."

While undeniably true, the comment stuck in the craw of the Washington elites. "With that [comment], the new president sent a clear challenge to an already suspicious Washington Establishment," wrote Quinn, a prominent insider herself.

Quinn countered Clinton's criticism of a conniving ruling class with a heart-warming anecdote. She described a bipartisan bevy of insiders -- from government and media -- joining together at a fund-raiser for spina bifida research, a party sponsored by CNN's Judy Woodruff and the Wall Street Journal's Al Hunt, whose son suffers from the disease.

The event drew some Clinton figures who, according to Quinn, had graduated into insider status -- Rahm Emanuel, Madeleine Albright and Donna Shalala. Respected Republicans were there, too: the likes of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La.

Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan, who is married to NBC's Andrea Mitchell, attended as did PBS's Jim Lehrer and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, "all behaving like the pals that they are," people "with genuine affection" for one another, Quinn wrote.

Unintentionally, however, Quinn offered a peek at the hypocrisy that permeates this insider community. While the Washington media often criticizes other journalists for ethical lapses, Quinn did not object to the conflict of interest arising when reporters solicit money from newsmakers, even for a worthy cause.

Quinn appeared equally oblivious to other aspects of the Establishment's double standards. Quinn herself personifies this bifurcated vision on morality.

As she condemned Clinton for an adulterous relationship, Quinn failed to mention that she advanced her journalistic career through a scandalous affair with longtime Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, whom she later married.

But Quinn insisted that the anger against Clinton was not primarily about sex. "For reasons they cannot understand, Washington insiders come across to the public [on TV] as judgmental puritans, shocked and horrified by the president's sexual misconduct," she wrote.

That was a misunderstanding, Quinn contended. Her fellow insiders held narrower concerns about propriety and appearance. She quoted political insider David Gergen as explaining that "sex is acceptable as long as it's discreet."

Professor Roger Wilkins, one of the few black members of the Washington Establishment, added "with a chuckle, 'God knows, most people in Washington have led robust sexual lives.'"

So, the Clinton problem really wasn't about sex, nor even about extramarital sex, Quinn maintained. It was about unseemly sex that ended up in public.

With no apparent sense of irony, Quinn sought to add some historical perspective about Clinton's misbehavior by interviewing Tish Baldrige, social secretary at Kennedy's White House.

"Now it's all sleaze and dirt," Baldrige groused about Clinton. "We all feel terribly let down. It's very emotional. We want there to be standards. We're used to standards. When you think back to other presidents, they all had a lot of class."

Quinn left out what "standards" and "class" entailed for Kennedy: indiscriminant affairs including one with a Mafia don's girlfriend, nude romps at the pool and alleged procurement of prostitutes to satisfy the president's kinkier desires.

Many of Kennedy's peccadilloes apparently were known to his close friend, Ben Bradlee, now Quinn's husband. But the sordid side of Camelot was hushed up then and disappears now despite its relevance to the Clinton debate.

Similarly, Quinn saw only a shining moral city on a hill during the 1980s. She quoted Muffie Cabot, a social secretary to President and Mrs. Reagan. Cabot, the former Muffie Brandon, described Clinton's Washington as "a demoralized little village" where people are "so disillusioned."

Cabot added her own historical context to the Clinton-Lewinsky case: "Watergate was pretty scary, but it wasn't quite as sordid as this."

Quinn's article demurred on the many serious moral questions surrounding the Reagan administration. Her blinders blocked out such touchy subjects as the recent CIA inspector general's report confirming longstanding allegations of cocaine trafficking by Reagan's Nicaraguan contra "freedom fighters."

Other recent government reports have implicated the Reagan administration in covering up human rights violations by other U.S. allies in Central America. But abetting war crimes and drug trafficking don't measure high on the Establishment's moral yardstick.

When Clinton is the issue, however, the elites become sticklers for the truth. "The lying offends them," Quinn observed.

But, again, Quinn was silent about volumes of past Washington lying. No mention was made of the denials about contra-drug trafficking or the wholesale perjury in the Iran-contra scandal.

Once more, Quinn missed the irony when she revived a saying used by Secretary of State George Shultz during his Iran-contra testimony in July 1987. "For both politicians and journalists, trust is the coin of the realm," Quinn wrote.

But Quinn omitted what followed Shultz's famous remark. After assuring his listeners that "trust is the coin of the realm," Shultz misled Congress about his Iran-contra knowledge.

Four years later, when Iran-contra prosecutor Lawrence Walsh confronted Shultz with documentary evidence of his false testimony, Shultz "repeatedly admitted that significant parts of his testimony to Congress had been completely wrong." [Walsh's Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters.]

But as a Washington insider, Shultz faced no recriminations for his admitted deceptions. That part of the history vanished, with outsider Walsh taking the brunt of the Establishment's anger for his work proving that a host of well-respected Reagan insiders were liars.

Another favored Republican was Reagan's Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who like Shultz earned his insider spurs during the Nixon administration. Weinberger's false Iran-contra testimony was even more blatant than Shultz's, causing Walsh to indict Weinberger for perjury in 1992.

The Washington elites rallied to Weinberger's defense. In the salons of Georgetown, there was palpable relief in December 1992 when President Bush pardoned Weinberger and five other Iran-contra defendants, effectively ending the Iran-contra investigation.

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen spoke for many insiders. In a column, Cohen described how impressed he was that Weinberger would push his own shopping cart at the Georgetown Safeway, often called the "social Safeway" because so many members of Washington's Establishment shopped there.

"Based on my Safeway encounters, I came to think of Weinberger as a basic sort of guy, candid and no nonsense -- which is the way much of official Washington saw him," Cohen wrote in praise of the pardon. "Cap, my Safeway buddy, walks, and that's all right with me." [WP, Dec. 30, 1992.]

Since the Washington insiders are zealously protective of their own, Clinton faces trouble on another Lewinsky front. His principal nemesis, special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, is a deeply admired member of the club, Quinn noted.

"Ken Starr is not seen by many Washington insiders as an out-of-control prudish crusader," Quinn explained. "Starr is a Washington insider, too. He has lived and worked here for years. ... He has many friends in both parties. Their wives are friendly with one another and their children go to the same schools."

Quinn had no tolerance, however, for those who see Clinton as a victim of conservative dirty tricks. To Quinn, Clinton is just the classic case of a boorish guest who has overstayed his welcome and doesn't have the sense to pack his bags.

"Privately, many in Establishment Washington would like to see Bill Clinton resign and spare the country, the presidency and the city any more humiliation," Quinn confided.

The day after Quinn's story, however, the American electorate complicated those private hopes. On Nov. 3, the voters defied the predictions of virtually every Washington pundit, all of whom foresaw substantial Republican gains. Instead, the voters sent a message of displeasure over Washington's scandal obsession.

The GOP’s House majority of 21 seats was cut almost in half, and two key Republican senators -- Alfonse D'Amato and Lauch Faircloth -- were defeated.

But it remained unclear if the GOP setback would halt the grim march toward impeachment. Soon, members of Congress will be back, sitting down at dinner parties in Georgetown, Potomac and McLean, again hearing the arguments for punishing Clinton's lack of moral rectitude.

The big question left is who the Congress will listen to -- the voters from back home or the Establishment in Washington.

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