LOYAL OPPOSITION: Honor and Integrity, Bush-style

There ought to be a SWAT team of historians, ready at a moment's notice to don jumpsuits with leather elbow-patches, race to the scene where history is being mugged, correct the record, and bring the malfeasant to justice. Such a crew was sorely needed recently when George Bush the First and his wife, Barbara, granted a New York Times reporter a rare interview to discuss the current presidential race. Speaking at their Kennebunkport, Maine, home, Bush predicted his son would triumph due to his pledge to "restore honor and integrity" to the Oval Office. "It isn't even debatable, in my view," the former President asserted. The elder Bush was talking as if the White House had been as clean as its name before that damn hillbilly moved in. That's why we need a rescue squad of historians. Bill Clinton's extracurricular activities may have spawned nostalgia for the Reagan-Bush White House years. And nostalgia waves usually come 20 years after the fact. In the 1970s, there was the 50s craze (American Graffiti and Happy Days); in the 1980s, 60s stuff was hot (The Big Chill soundtrack and Ronald Reagan); in the 1990s, the 70s fared well (disco and John Travolta). So perhaps now's the time to feel warm and fuzzy about the Reagan-Bush era and to yearn for George Bush the Second to revive his father's -- er -- Camelot. That is, until the historiams' ERT arrives.

The most amateur historian can show that the Oval Office inhabited by Reagan and Bush was as stained, if not more so, as that overseen by Clinton -- even if the stains were of a different nature. On the subject of "honor and integirty," let's recall the Iran-contra affair. When the news broke in 1986 that the Reagan-Bush Administration had sold weapons to the hostage-holding regime in Tehran and used the proceeds to wage a not-too-secret secret war in Central America, Vice President George Bush famously denied he had been "in the loop." In an autobiography he published in 1987 when he was running for president, Bush maintained he had only been vaguely aware of an effort to "reach out" to one of the Iranian factions. He explained that the Iran project had been "compartmentalized" and he had been left out in the cold. Moreover, he related, it was not until a month after the scandal's start that he obtained the chance to see "the picture as a whole" -- and this opportunity came when he was briefed by the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee. His claim: he was so far removed from this operation that it took a senator to explain the details to him. Bush stuck to this know-nothing line throughout his 1988 campaign and election as president. Government documents subsequently released disclosed that Bush had attended many high-level administration meetings on the Iran initiative. But we don't have to trust that paper trail. In his private diary, Bush wrote of the Iran operation, "I'm one of the few people that know fully the details, and there is a lot of flack and misinformation out there." His own words prove he lied to the public about his involvement in the sordid affair.

Bush was able to get away with such dishonorable behavior in part because he succeeded in withholding his diaries from Iran-contra investigators. In February of 1987, Lawrence Walsh, the Iran-contra independent counsel, requested Bush's calendars and diaries. But Bush did not turn over the material until December 1992 -- a month after he had lost his bid for reelection. He then claimed he had never been informed of the request by his lawyers. Unlike Clinton's Monica stonewall, Bush's Iran-contra coverup worked.

As Vice President, Bush had played a key role in one of the more troubling aspects of the contra half of the scandal. In 1984, the Reagan White House sought covert ways to circumvent congressional restrictions on aid to the contra rebels fighting the leftist Sandinistas of Nicaragua, and the administration's schemers considered encouraging other nations to provide support to the contras in exchange for favors from Washington. That is, they looked to foreign policy bribery. At one classified meeting, Bush recognized the drawback of such a plan. "How can anyone object to the U.S. encouraging third parties to provide help to the anti-Sandinistas?" he said. "The only problem that might come up is if the United States were to promise to give these third parties something in return so that some people could interpret this as some kind of exchange." Bush was in sync with Attorney General WIlliam French Smith, whose ofice had decided a quid pro quo of this nature would be illegal. But eight months later, Bush participated in one of these deals. He traveled to Honduras and helped delivered a message to President Suazo Cordoba: Washington would release economic assistance and military equipment then being withheld, providing -- wink, wink -- Suazo's regime aided the contras.

Fast forward to Bush as President. In his dwindling days in the White House, Bush, on Christmas Eve in 1992, pardoned several Reagan-Bush officials who had been indicted by Walsh, most notably, Caspar Weinberger, the former secretary of defense. Weinberger had been accused of withholding his diaries from Iran-contra investigators. (Like pardoner, like pardoned.) Bush's pardon aborted a trial of Weinberger in which Bush might have been called as a witness. The trial might also have brought further attention to Bush's role in the Iran-contra business. Walsh blasted Bush's pardon decision, noting that it showed that "powerful people with powerful allies can commit serious crimes in high office -- deliberately abusing the public trust -- without consequence.'" (Remember, Walsh was a Republican.) A peeved Walsh also revealed that Bush may have "illegally withheld documents" from investigators. He later said it was "hard to find an adjective strong enough to characterize a president who has such contempt for honesty."

Some Republican and conservative partisans have long tried to depict the Iran-contra mess as a third-rate scandal, orchestrated by liberal Democrats and a liberal media and kept alive by an Ahab-like independent counsel. But it was about the ethical conduct of foreign policy and the prosecution of arguably illegal secret warfare -- matters somewhat more stirring, from a constitutional perspective, than lying about pseudo-sex. One need not, though, rely on the Iran-contra episode to pronounce the Reagan-Bush White House a place of dishonor. In those years, the Oval Office reeked of blood and sleaze. The Reagan Bush Administration kissed up to the tortuous and anti-semitic generals of Argentina, cozied up to the racist regime in South Africa, provided aid to murderous military brutes in Guatemala, tried to hush-up a military massacre of 800 peasants in El Salvador, and cut deals with Manuel Noriega when he was known to be a drug-dealing tyrant. (Bush's invasion of Panama to apprehend Washington's old pal resulted in civilian deaths.) Top Reaganites -- Michael Deaver and Lyn Nofziger -- were convicted of influence-peddling. Cavalier policymaking led to 241 US troops killed by a suicide bomber in Beirut. Bush toasted Ferdinand Marcos -- the dictator of the Philippines -- and praised his commitment to democracy. Reagan visited a cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, containing the remains of SS men. The HUD scandal exposed Republican cronies enriching themselves on housing programs meant to help the poor. Reagan and Bush kept silent on AIDS. A White House national security adviser had to resign for pocketing money from Japanese journalists in return for arranging an interview with Nancy Reagan. An independent counsel found that Attorney General Ed Meese had probably violated federal tax and conflict-of-interest laws, and the Office of Government Ethics concluded Meese might have repeatedly violated conflict-of-interest rules.

Restore honor and integrity? William Jefferson Clinton inherited from George Herbert Walker Bush a White House without any such foundation. That's no excuse for him; it's just history. As for Bush the Younger, he cannot restore what was not there.

David Corn, Washington editor of The Nation, is the author of Deep Background, a novel of political suspense published by St. Martin's Press.

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