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Mary McGrory

Cruel Yule

By Mary McGrory
Sunday, December 15, 2002; Page B07

In this year's White House Christmas card, George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, wish us "love and peace." Both items are in short supply at the onset of the gladsome season.

Take love. It took an awful beating from Senate Republican leader Trent Lott, who at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party spoke hateful and hurtful words to African Americans. He expressed his nostalgia for segregation, when African Americans were regarded -- and treated -- as problems. Lott burbled that if the country had voted for the segregationist presidential candidate Thurmond in 1948, as Mississippi did, "we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years." Thurmond has changed his ways; Lott has not.

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Democrats were notably slow in realizing that Lott had spoken the unspeakable. Democratic leader Tom Daschle, in the clubby Senate spirit, initially accepted Lott's claim of birthday-party glow for what Lott later called, in his first apology, "a poor choice of words." Two tries later, Daschle got it right -- "profoundly disturbing."

Other racist statements made in the absence of birthday cakes continued to pour out of Lott's past. They showed him to be a lifelong follower of Jim Crow rather than Abe Lincoln, the founder of his party.

In regard to the other unseasonable topic, war with Iraq, it has been a turbulent time for the commander in chief. "Moral clarity" has been a casualty of the current muddle created by North Korea. Saddam Hussein, who is taking a crash course at charm school, has been making nice to U.N. inspectors, and he apologized, a little late, for invading Kuwait.

The inspectors haven't found anything yet, but in what was widely advertised as a model of joint action against terrorism, an alert Spanish navy uncovered a stash of Scud missiles sailing toward Yemen. Yemen had taken the pledge against missile purchases, but it failed to mention that it had pending an order for 15 from Kim Jong Il. We sheepishly allowed the missiles to proceed to their destination, as international law requires.

Such conduct, had it come from Saddam Hussein, would have guaranteed that downtown Baghdad would even now be in the process of being bombed into a parking lot. But there was more.

North Korea announced that it would resume its nuclear program. And it said "Make me" to President Bush on the U.S. demand for a ban on restarting nuclear power plants.

But touchy Bush refused to be provoked. He is demonstrating a touching faith in the diplomacy that he disdains in dealing with Iraq. He is relying on North Korea's neighbors to housebreak Kim Jong Il.

The president is able to obey the yuletide admonition to "let nothing you dismay" in all this because he got just what he wanted for Christmas last Monday from a federal judge he appointed. Judge John D. Bates, in a decision that Dick Cheney himself might have written, said that it was none of the public's business how public policy on energy was fashioned in secret sessions between Cheney and Enron bigwigs before they started going to jail.

The judge echoed words that Cheney used when refusing to turn over documents and information as requested in a suit brought by the General Accounting Office. Bates dismissed the suit -- and the public's right to know. Bates conceded that his decision "may seem overly protective of . . . the executive branch." It certainly does in the light of his honor's past.

When Bates was deputy to Kenneth Starr, Bill Clinton's official tormentor, he definitely did not regard the White House as inviolate. He treated it like the public's closet, to be entered at will and rifled for grist for the special prosecutor.

At one point he ordered the Clintons' personal quarters to be tossed in a shelf-by-shelf and drawer-by-drawer search for a box of Vincent Foster's -- which never did turn up. Bates gave then-special White House counsel Jane Sherburne a choice -- either the FBI or she must turn the Clintons' family quarters inside out. A seething Sherburne, with an assistant and usher Gary Walters in tow, started the search through the Clintons' belongings. All it turned up were dust balls under Chelsea's bed.

Bob Woodward's book "Shadow" provides a vivid picture.

Starr deputy Bates thought the Clintons' private life was fair game. But now he says the formulation of official policy is off-limits to the public.

Is that "equal justice under law," the motto of the Supreme Court?

Hardly. It's a gift for a secrecy-struck chief executive and a lump of coal for the rest of us.

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