Will the Real President Please Stand Up?
Or, to put the question another way, can Democrats live with any type of oversight they do not control?
The last time I appeared on these pages, I spoke of the President's obligations under Article II of the U.S. Constitution, specifically his duty to "take care that the Laws be faithfully executed." Now comes news that White House Counsel Charles F.C. Ruff has failed more than once to provide information requested by the Committee on Government Reform and Oversight of the U.S. House of Representatives. Apparently, a log of documents for which the White House intends to claim privilege was first requested by the Committee on April 23. Several deadlines were agreed but not kept by Mr. Ruff. One more time the Committee, trying to bend over backwards, postponed Mr. Ruff's appearance until tomorrow the 21st.
But delay by the White House is only one half of the picture. The other half is the full-court press brought to bear on the Committee's chairman, Dan Burton of Indiana, a solid, sober, no-nonsense man from the heartland. He will need it all if he is to survive the onslaught of insinuations, accusations, "suddenly located" memos, and "revelations" finding their way to the press. Supposedly, he treated a lobbyist for Pakistan harshly, although the government of Pakistan knows nothing about it. Supposedly, he supported Mobutu of Zaire, but what he actually said on national TV was that Mobutu "raped his country six ways from sundown." He also played golf in a tournament sponsored by AT&T - an act surely demanding the full attention and scrutiny of the entire Washington Press Corps.
So let us get serious for a moment. The trouble with Mr. Burton is that he just might go all the way to find out the details of Webster Hubbell's sudden windfall, described by The Washington Post as "extravagant pay for mock employment." Mr. Burton just might hold proper hearings to trace the flow of money from Communist China to "Clinton'Gore '96" and the DNC. Mr. Burton just might succeed in satisfying The People's curiosity about the command post which allocated seats on Air Force One, afternoons of coffee, and nights in the Lincoln Bedroom.
Mr. Burton must prepare for more "spontaneous" discoveries about his past. Yet neither he nor other Republicans need be on the defensive. Rather, it is time to put matters in perspective. The Republican record on honesty in government was established once and for all when Mr. Howard Baker, then Senator Baker, posed the much-quoted question about Watergate: "What did the President know, and when did he know it?" Until such time that a Democrat of similar integrity comes forward, the score remains Republicans 1 - Democrats 0. That Mr. Burton is made of the same cloth as Mr. Baker is born out by the fact that he demanded documents from the Republican National Committee in the same manner as he did from the Democratic National Committee.
But, saint or sinner, Mr. Burton is not the issue. The issue is the President. No amount of mud sprayed in the direction of Mr. Burton will wash off the layers of dirt building up on the walls of the Executive Mansion. In truth, Mr. Ruff is doing the President a disservice because every delay fuels more speculation about his possible culpability.
This is unfortunate because most Americans, I believe, hope the President is at worst a blatant opportunist but not guilty of actual crimes. Surprising as it may be, even staunch Conservative Republicans would just as soon see Mr. Clinton absolved than the institution of the Presidency hurt. That, incidentally, is the main reason why the matter of foreign money in return for which foreign policy decisions might have been made must be cleared up. And here, one hopes even staunch Liberal Democrats would draw the line.
The constitutional prerogative for a speedy, complete and conclusive investigation rests with Congress. The constitutional responsibility for a speedy, complete and conclusive investigation rests with the President - so says Article II. While it would be unreasonable to hold Mr. Clinton responsible if a drunken driver in Nevada breaks the law and is not prosecuted, those who work directly under him are his responsibility, and his alone. If Mr. Ruff delays his response to Congress, the President must relieve him of his duties and give his successor an ultimatum. The Constitution mandates nothing less.
Meanwhile, it is Mr. Burton who gets smeared, and Mr. Ruff who takes the beating. Mr. Burton, it seems, is guilty only of taking his duties as chairman more seriously than is currently convenient. Mr. Ruff, I presume, is an Officer of the Court, and Mr. Burton has taken an oath of office. But neither has any specific constitutional obligation in the matter.
The President does.