Burton, who announced Tuesday his plans to retire at the end of 2012, once shot watermelons in his backyard to examine bullet angles related to the suicide of a top White House aide. His staff subpoenaed the wrong man and released false tapes of an imprisoned former confidant of the Clinton family.
“The Burton investigation is going to be remembered as a case study in how not to do a congressional investigation and as a prime example of investigation as farce,” Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said in 1998.
Burton, 73, rose from humble beginnings in a household with an abusive father to serve 30 years in the House. “To go from humble beginnings to meeting with presidents, kings, princes and some of the world’s most powerful leaders, it has been an experience that I cherish. I consider myself to be the luckiest man on the face of the Earth,” he said Tuesday.
Regardless of one’s take on his investigations, Burton’s impact is lasting. He helped transform the somewhat sleepy oversight panel into one of the most feared committees on Capitol Hill, particularly when the chairman hails from the opposing party of the president. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), who bristled under Burton’s chairmanship for six years, used his two years with the gavel to pummel the Bush White House’s use of security contractors in Iraq and its ties to failed energy concern Enron.
Now, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is trying to forge a similar role as investigative thorn in the side to the Obama White House, with the oversight committee digging into the Justice Department’s controversial “Fast and Furious” criminal gun program.
Through his staff alumni, Burton’s impact will be felt for years to come. His chief investigator at the time, Barbara Comstock, is now a rising Republican star in Virginia’s House of Delegates, representing Northern Virginia, and is a potential congressional candidate in the future. Reps. Robert J. Dold (R-Ill.) and Tim Griffin (R-Ark.), both members of the rabble-rousing group of 89 Republican freshmen who took office last year, cut their teeth investigating the Clintons in the 1990s.
Perhaps no other Burton staffer summed up the tumult of the committee at that time better than David Bossie, who is now the president of Citizens United, the conservative group that served as lead protagonist in the landmark 2010 Supreme Court ruling that opened a new pathway for hundreds of millions of dollars in special-interest money to make its way into elections.
By 1998, Bossie was the lead investigator into several threads of Clinton-related probes, including Webb Hubbell, the Arkansan who was partner in a Little Rock law firm with Hillary Rodham Clinton before Bill Clinton won the presidency. Hubbell, who became associate attorney general, ended up in prison for defrauding the law firm.
Bossie got hold of tapes of Hubbell’s jailhouse conversations, editing 150 hours of conversations down to one hour — creating a damning impression that was later revealed to be at odds with the entire talks. After Burton put up some resistance, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) demanded Bossie’s resignation. Gingrich told a closed-door meeting of Republicans that the investigation had become “a circus” and told Burton, “I’m embarrassed for you.”
Gingrich, who promoted Burton to the chairmanship, remains close to the retiring lawmaker and has campaigned with Burton in Florida this week in advance of Tuesday’s presidential primary election in the Sunshine State. Burton is just one of four lawmakers who served with Gingrich in the House and are still in office to endorse his candidacy.
Burton’s most lasting legislative accomplishments were his hawkish views on Cuba, expressed in his co-authoring of the Helms-Burton Act, which imposed stricter sanctions on the Castro regime.
Democrats, however, recall Burton almost entirely for his furious pursuit of the Clintons, something that led them to produce a minority report that accused Burton of running a partisan investigation with little regard for the truth.
“The investigation may be historic, but for all the wrong reasons,” the Democrats, led by Waxman, wrote of Burton.