By George Lardner Jr. and Juliet Eilperin
The move came as Gingrich sought to contain the damage, condemning "the circus" that took place within Indiana Republican Dan Burton's Government Oversight and Reform Committee and scolding Burton at a closed Republican Conference meeting for refusing to say that he was embarrassed by the episode.
But the speaker also exhorted Republicans to keep on the attack and concentrate their efforts on White House conduct. "The focus has got to be on the crimes that are being committed at the White House," one lawmaker quoted Gingrich as saying. "I want you to forget the word 'scandals,' and start using the word 'crimes.' "
Seizing on the GOP disarray, President Clinton criticized last week's release of selectively edited transcripts of the tapes that were routinely recorded last year while Hubbell, Clinton's first associate attorney general, was serving a federal prison term for defrauding his Little Rock law firm.
"I think it was clearly a violation of privacy of Mr. and Mrs. Hubbell," Clinton told reporters. "And I think virtually everyone in America now recognizes it was wrong to release selected portions of the tapes, apparently to create a false impression of what the whole record indicated."
Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) accused Gingrich of "trying to evade any responsibility for the Burton tapes travesty.
"A committee staff member should not be made the scapegoat for Chairman Burton's mistakes, missteps, and misdeeds," Gephardt said. "After all, it wasn't a staff member who said he was 'out to get' the president. It wasn't a staff member who made the decision to release the edited tapes. The buck should stop with Chairman Burton, not his fall guy."
In a letter to Republican colleagues, Burton said his staff edited 150 hours of conversations down to "one hour of relevant material."
"Although the vast majority of the material was completely accurate, some mistakes and omissions were made," Burton said. "I take responsibility for those mistakes."
His hard-driving chief investigator, David Bossie, submitted a letter of resignation later in the day, saying that he wanted to blunt the "unjustified attacks" coming from House Democrats and the White House.
The editing and release of the Hubbell tapes, subpoenaed by the committee last year, was described by one insider as a "Dave Bossie project," opposed by the panel's chief counsel and other committee staffers but ultimately approved by Burton.
In meetings this week, Gingrich and other leaders have voiced their concerns over Burton's staff. While Burton defended his senior investigator publicly and said Bossie was leaving of his own accord, Gingrich told the conference yesterday that Bossie, who had survived repeated previous attempts, had been fired.
The speaker also emphasized repeatedly in private conversations with his colleagues that the GOP must professionalize its investigations of the executive branch and turn public attention back on misdeeds of the Clinton White House. Gingrich pointedly criticized the release of the tapes while Burton continued to defend his own conduct and that of his staff.
This contrast was evident during the GOP's closed conference meeting yesterday, when Gingrich apologized to his colleagues for how staffers distributed the tapes on Friday. When Burton shot back that he was not embarrassed, according to members who attended the meeting, Gingrich responded, "Then I'm embarrassed for you, I'm embarrassed for myself, and I'm embarrassed for the conference at the circus that went on at your committee."
The most controversial editing involved the deletion of a statement by Hubbell that first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton had "no idea" of billing irregularities at the Rose Law Firm where they both worked. Also deleted was an assertion by Hubbell that he was not being paid hush money to keep him from cooperating with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's Whitewater investigation.
In his resignation letter, Bossie said that "no one on the staff ever intentionally left anything out." The transcription and editing process, other aides said, was in the end a crash project aimed to coincide with last week's new indictment of Hubbell, his wife, his lawyer and his accountant on tax evasion charges.
"There was plenty of negative stuff that we didn't put in the transcripts," one committee source said. "And there were other tapes with negative information that we didn't put out at all."
One example was an Oct. 23, 1996, exchange between Hubbell and his accountant, Michael C. Schaufele, which might support Burton's charge that they were expecting, although they never got, a presidential pardon after Election Day. "If Bill wins," Schaufele told Hubbell, "and in some positive manner, he makes this go away -- I'm not real sure what will end up happening, and if that happens, then we can push through our first angle . . . which is to write a book about your experiences."
Gingrich also took hits from conservatives such as Floyd Brown, of Citizens United, host of a Seattle radio call-in show and a friend of Bossie. "Gingrich forced this thing, that's very clear," Brown said. "The guy has tried to micromanage the investigation every step of the way . . . I think he done himself tremendous harm with conservatives."
Staff writer Lloyd Grove contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company