Editor's Note: With the Democratic victories in
the House and Senate, there is finally the opportunity to demand answers
from the Bush administration about important questions, ranging from
Dick Cheney's secret energy policies to George W. Bush's Iraq War
deceptions. But the Democrats are sure to be tempted to put the goal of
"bipartisanship" ahead of the imperative for truth.
Democrats, being Democrats, always want to put
governance, such as enacting legislation and building coalitions, ahead
of oversight, which often involves confrontation and hard feelings.
Democrats have a difficult time understanding why facts about past
events matter when there are problems in the present and challenges in
Given that proclivity, we are re-posting a story
from last May that examined why President Bill Clinton and the last
Democratic congressional majority (in 1993-94) shied away from a fight
over key historical scandals from the Reagan-Bush-I years -- and the
high price the Democrats paid for that decision:
book, Secrecy & Privilege, opens with a scene in spring 1994 when
a guest at a White House social event asks Bill Clinton why his
administration didn’t pursue unresolved scandals from the Reagan-Bush
era, such as the Iraqgate secret support for Saddam Hussein’s government
and clandestine arms shipments to Iran.
Clinton responds to the questions from the guest,
documentary filmmaker Stuart Sender, by saying, in effect, that those
historical questions had to take a back seat to Clinton’s domestic
agenda and his desire for greater bipartisanship with the Republicans.
Clinton “didn’t feel that it was a good idea to
pursue these investigations because he was going to have to work with
these people,” Sender told me in an interview. “He was going to try to
work with these guys, compromise, build working relationships.”
Clinton’s relatively low regard for the value of
truth and accountability is relevant again today because other centrist
Democrats are urging their party to give George W. Bush’s administration
a similar pass if the Democrats win one or both houses of Congress.
Reporting about a booklet issued by the Progressive
Policy Institute, a think tank of the Democratic Leadership Council, the
Washington Post wrote, “these centrist Democrats … warned against calls
to launch investigations into past administration decisions if Democrats
gain control of the House or Senate in the November elections.”
These Democrats also called on the party to reject
its “non-interventionist left” wing, which opposed the Iraq War and
which wants Bush held accountable for the deceptions that surrounded it.
“Many of us are disturbed by the calls for
investigations or even impeachment as the defining vision for our party
for what we would do if we get back into office,” said pollster Jeremy
Rosner, calling such an approach backward-looking. [Washington Post, May
Yet, before Democrats endorse the DLC’s
don’t-look-back advice, they might want to examine the consequences of
Clinton’s decision in 1993-94 to help the Republicans sweep the
Reagan-Bush scandals under the rug. Most of what Clinton hoped for –
bipartisanship and support for his domestic policies – never
After winning Election 1992, Clinton also rebuffed
appeals from members of the U.S. intelligence community to reverse the
Reagan-Bush “politicization” of the CIA’s analytical division by
rebuilding the ethos of objective analysis even when it goes against a
President’s desires. [See Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege.]
Instead, in another accommodating gesture, Clinton
gave the CIA director’s job to right-wing Democrat, James Woolsey, who
had close ties to the Reagan-Bush administration and especially to its
One senior Democrat told me Clinton picked Woolsey
as a reward to the neocon-leaning editors of the New Republic for
backing Clinton in Election 1992.
“I told [Clinton’s national security team] that the
New Republic hadn’t brought them enough votes to win a single precinct,”
the senior Democrat said. “But they kept saying that they owed this to
the editors of the New Republic.”
During his tenure at the CIA, Woolsey did next to
nothing to address the CIA’s “politicization” issue, intelligence
analysts said. Woolsey also never gained Clinton’s confidence and –
after several CIA scandals – was out of the job by January 1995.
At the time of that White House chat with Stuart
Sender, Clinton thought that his see-no-evil approach toward the
Reagan-Bush era would give him an edge in fulfilling his campaign
promise to “focus like a laser beam” on the economy.
He was taking on other major domestic challenges,
too, like cutting the federal deficit and pushing a national health
insurance plan developed by First Lady Hillary Clinton.
So for Clinton, learning the truth about
controversial deals between the Reagan-Bush crowd and the autocratic
governments of Iraq and Iran just wasn’t on the White House radar
screen. Clinton also wanted to grant President George H.W. Bush a
“I wanted the country to be more united, not more
divided,” Clinton explained in his 2004 memoir, My Life.
“President Bush had given decades of service to our country, and I
thought we should allow him to retire in peace, leaving the
(Iran-Contra) matter between him and his conscience.”
Clinton’s generosity to George H.W. Bush and the
Republicans, of course, didn’t turn out as he had hoped. Instead of
bipartisanship and reciprocity, he was confronted with eight years of
unrelenting GOP hostility, attacks on both his programs and his personal
Later, as tensions grew in the Middle East, the
American people and even U.S. policymakers were flying partially blind,
denied anything close to the full truth about the history of clandestine
relationships between the Reagan-Bush team and hostile nations in the
Clinton’s failure to expose that real history also
led indirectly to the restoration of Bush Family control of the White
House in 2001. Despite George W. Bush’s inexperience as a national
leader, he drew support from many Americans who remembered his father’s
If the full story of George H.W. Bush’s role in
secret deals with Iraq and Iran had ever been made public, the Bush
Family’s reputation would have been damaged to such a degree that George
W. Bush’s candidacy would not have been conceivable.
Not only did Clinton inadvertently clear the way
for the Bush restoration, but the Right’s political ascendancy wiped
away much of the Clinton legacy, including a balanced federal budget and
progress on income inequality. A poorly informed American public also
was easily misled on what to do about U.S. relations with Iraq and Iran.
In retrospect, Clinton’s tolerance of Reagan-Bush
cover-ups was a lose-lose-lose – the public was denied information it
needed to understand dangerous complexities in the Middle East, George
W. Bush built his presidential ambitions on the nation’s fuzzy memories
of his dad, and Republicans got to enact a conservative agenda.
Clinton’s approach also reflected a lack of
appreciation for the importance of truth in a democratic Republic. If
the American people are expected to do their part in making sure
democracy works, they need to be given at least a chance of being an
Yet, Clinton – and now some pro-Iraq War Democrats
– view truth as an expendable trade-off when measured against political
tactics or government policies. In reality, accurate information about
important events is the lifeblood of democracy.
Though sometimes the truth can hurt, Clinton and
the Democrats should understand that covering up the truth can hurt even
more. As Clinton’s folly with the Reagan-Bush scandals should have
taught, the Democrats may hurt themselves worst of all when helping the
Republicans cover up the truth.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra
stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from
Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at
secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine,
the Press & 'Project Truth.'