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Who Needs an Independent Counsel?

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, September 23, 1997; Page A17


If President Clinton had some gumption and, maybe more important, a taste for confrontation, he would call in the press, order up the TV networks and announce he was pardoning both himself and Al Gore for anything relating to campaign fund-raising. He would do that, he would solemnly announce, so that Congress would write a law that makes some sense.

The current laws do not. In fact, there is something downright absurd about marshaling the Justice Department and then maybe an independent counsel to look into whether Clinton and Gore actually asked someone somewhere to make a political donation. This, we are told, might be a felony – like, say, armed robbery. As anyone can see, it is actually an absurdity.

What do we care – Mr. and Mrs. USA – whether Gore or Clinton was in the business section of the White House when he picked up the phone or upstairs in the private quarters? What do we care whether Gore was in his office or ducked across the street to a pay phone? What do we care whether he used a credit card or called collect? Yet these are some of the very issues involved in this molehill-into-a-mountain scandal.

As everyone but congressional Republicans seems to know, the law involved was designed to stop elected federal officials from putting the arm on their own staffs. This was once a routine practice and, indeed, is not unknown to this day. In some jurisdictions, county or municipal workers are expected to make political donations to the reigning organization. Senate Republicans in need of some pointers can ask Al D'Amato how this is done.

If Clinton or Gore had done something along those lines, an independent counsel would be justified. Or had either one of them – or anyone within a mile of Clinton – offered a job or a government program in exchange for a contribution, that too would be serious stuff. Then it would not matter if the call was made from the presidential shower or the Situation Room – with a Donald Duck phone or the vaunted red one. A crime would have been committed.

But in the absence of any such accusation, the Republicans press ahead anyway – and, in the process, do the White House a favor. The question of who called whom from where obscures the uncontested fact that Clinton cheapened the White House with his greed for campaign bucks. The coffees, the sleepovers, the Lincoln Bedroom for the campaign version of frequent flyer miles – all these turned what used to be called The People's House into a bed and breakfast for fat cats.

Sooner or later the public – but probably never the press – is going to understand that the Republicans are calling for an independent counsel for what, in essence, may not be a crime and should not be a crime anyway. Back in 1975, that was the conclusion of four Watergate special prosecutors – Archibald Cox, Leon Jaworski, Henry Ruth and Charles Ruff. In a report, they said the law was so confusing and antiquated that Congress ought to change it. Congress, of course, has done nothing of the sort.

What's more, if an independent counsel is summoned, the result will be a partisan donnybrook. Attorney General Janet Reno will have to turn the matter over to a three-judge panel headed by the toxically partisan David B. Sentelle. (He supposedly named his daughter Reagan after you-know-who.) He is the same appellate judge whose panel fired Robert Fiske and replaced him with Kenneth Starr, a frank ideologue himself. Starr has since conducted an open-ended investigation of Whitewater, which has so far produced nothing more than questions about his competence. He seems lost in Arkansas.

The GOP has a case to make about the way this White House raised money. But for a party whose sole attribute is a belief in less government, it is awfully quick to bring in the government's heaviest guns to swat what is, after all, a mere gnat of an alleged infraction. Once summoned, though, the Lord High Independent Counsel can do pretty much what he or she wants. That would mean, among other things, that Gore would have to spend more and more time in the attic, searching for old records, canceled checks and high school yearbooks. He has already had to hire two criminal lawyers.

The whole thing is a study in disproportion, in a madness that, in other places, would entail an examination of the water supply. Campaign financing badly needs reform but, rather than do that, congressional Republicans are trying to lynch Clinton and Gore for what, it appears, is their most serious offense: winning the last election. No independent counsel is going to change that.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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