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A Thousand Friends

By Charles Krauthammer
Friday, February 28 1997; Page A21

Richard Nixon was laid low by his enemies list. How fitting that Bill Clinton should be laid low by his friends list – all 355,000 of them neatly packed into the White House computer, with that extra special 938 tucked into the Lincoln Bedroom.

Nixon's corruption was the dark, brooding, suspicious kind. Clinton, on the other hand, specializes in glad-handing, back-slapping, coffee-klatching, come-up-to-my-bedroom corruption.

Has there ever been a president so lacking in discrimination in his choice of friends, associates, liaisons, partners? So willing to embrace, engage, exploit, transact with anyone? So "ready to start overnights right away"? So in thrall of his own deadly combination of garrulousness and greed?

Having now given the one-nighter entirely new meaning, Clinton protests that "they were my friends. . . . I did not have any strangers here." White House spinmeister Ann Lewis had to quickly amend that to include over-nighters who "weren't friends yet."

Cute. A kind of Mr. Rogers definition of a new playmate. But a not-yet-friend is best called a stranger, or in this case, a distant fat cat. A not-yet-friend cannot at the same time be a friend.

As for Clinton's actual friends, one is staggered by their sheer number and variety. Start, as he did, with James McDougal, Susan McDougal, David Hale, Web Hubbell, the whole raft of Arkansas cronies now shuttling to and from jail. Liars, felons, swindlers, fraud artists. These were his closest business associates.

Then there are his coffee-mates. Among these friends and friends of friends we now find a Chinese arms-dealer, a fugitive Lebanese businessman sought for eight years on an Interpol arrest warrant for embezzlement, and assorted home-grown ex-cons and parolees. For example, Eric Wynn, convicted thief and tax cheat, reputed associate of the Bonanno family: at coffee with Clinton, Dec. 21, 1995; in the news just this Tuesday, when his bail was revoked for failing to report his five arrests since his sentencing on 13 counts of conspiracy and fraud.

And then there are the special friends, the 938 Lincoln Bedroom overnighters who together gave $10 million to the Democratic Party – an assortment of (more) Arkansas cronies, rich executives, movie stars and other useful friends and not-yet-friends.

At Thomas Jefferson's White House, writes Stephen Ambrose, "nonpolitical guests included the poet and journalist Joel Barlow, the artist Charles Willson Peale, the author Thomas Paine, the poet Philip Freneau, and other writers, scientists, and travelers." Bill Clinton's "Arts and Letters" guest list features Candice Bergen, Chevy Chase, Ted Danson, Richard Dreyfuss and Peter Guber. And Jefferson, poor soul, believed in progress.

Before the Lincoln Bedroom list emerged, Clinton had said, "I think it would be a bad thing if someone was told you have to give such and such amount to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom." Yet in the handwritten 1995 note to his staff in which Clinton says he is "ready to start overnights right away," the very next words demand a list of the top 10 party donors, along with the names of those who have given $50,000 and $100,000. This from the "most ethical administration in American history" pledged to "Putting People First." Rich people.

Nonetheless, what is by now the most spectacular political financing scandal since Nixon will not bring Clinton down (unless, of course, he is found to have sold trade favors to those Chinese arms dealers and government agents). Selling the Lincoln Bedroom is not a high crime or misdemeanor. But it is offensive. It is even more offensive when, caught red-handed – actually, long-handed – he lies about it.

But whether or not Clinton ultimately forfeits power for his selling of the White House, be has already forfeited respect, the one thing he's craved and clawed for since he was 14 and dreamed of playing football on the White House lawn. Thus the obsessive musing with his Doppelganger, Dick Morris, about breaking into the "upper tier" of American presidents.

Clinton has been mired at the Rutherford B. Hayes level for four years. And as his second administration is progressively engulfed by these metastasizing scandals, he is headed for Ulysses S. Grant territory. Poor Clinton. He burns to enter the higher rung of presidents where his idol, John Kennedy, resides. The great Kennedy chronicle is "A Thousand Days." Clinton's, alas, will be "A Thousand Friends."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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