September 19, 2019

The Arlington Cemetery scandal that wasn’t

What if?

Paula Jones is a clever hoax.

Whitewater is just another failed 1980s real estate deal.

The White House fund-raising scandals are much ado about technicalities.

About 40 percent of the electorate, it seems, will readily believe any nefarious charge against the first family. The level of cynicism was about the same during the Reagan and Bush years. Congressional Democrats, lest we forget, spent $9 million trying to prove that George Bush flew to Paris during the final days of the 1980 presidential election to cut a deal with Iranian agents not to release U.S. hostages until after American voters ousted Jimmy Carter.

Almost half the country, it seems, is willing to believe the occupant of the White House is capable of committing any offense, even one as heinous as introducing urban blacks to crack cocaine. Which explains why, during the middle of last week’s international crisis with Iraq, the Pentagon was compelled to respond to allegations made by a right-wing magazine that the White House sold burial plots at Arlington National Cemetery to fat cat Democratic campaign contributors.

Republican congressional staffers reportedly got a tip that Larry Lawrence, a multimillionaire from San Diego, Calif. who donated about $10 million to Democrats over the last decade, was buried at Arlington with military honors. Lawrence was serving as U.S. ambassador to Switzerland at the time of his death. His widow played golf with Clinton during a fund-raising event in Colorado.

Based on that circumstantial evidence, Republican staffers concluded, without checking the Federal Election Commission data base, that many of the 65 individuals granted waivers by the Department of Army were political contributors.

A subsequent check of FEC records turned up no other campaign donors. The rules were bent for Lawrence because he served in the U.S. Merchant Marine and was injured while sailing on a North Atlantic convoy mission, one of the most hazardous of all World War II military operations. The other exceptions went to people like Thurgood Marshall, former justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and Dr. Albert B. Sabin, a veteran who developed the oral polio vaccine.

John Sommer, the American Legion’s executive director, was shown the Pentagon documents Friday and concluded, “It seems that the anonymous accusations regarding unqualified burial at Arlington were unfounded.” Defense Secretary Bill Cohen scolded the media during a Sunday appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” for causing “unnecessary’ discomfort to veteran families by its “rush to judgment.”

Jim Mitchell, who grew up in Little Rock, Ark., and went to Yale Law School with Clinton, wasn’t surprised.

“So much of the stuff is bogus. I wait until I hear something for the fifth or sixth time before I think it has any credibility,” he said. Mitchell ran for Congress in 1976. He is the husband of Maine House Speaker Elizabeth Mitchell. During campaign stops in the state Clinton has referred to the Mitchells as his Maine connection, even though she is a South Carolina native.

The Clinton presidency has been an emotional roller coaster for Arkansas. There was great pride that the young governor from their relatively small state won the presidency, Jim Mitchell said. Then came the feeling of being “picked on” by the national media and GOP investigations, followed by sorrow that some of the Arkansas residents who accompanied Clinton to Washington were overtaken by scandal.

Little Rock isn’t that big a place. Everybody knows the political players, Mitchell explained.

Mitchell was a friend of Jim Guy Tucker, the man who succeeded Clinton as Arkansas governor. Tucker was found guilty of several financial improprieties that turned up as an indirect result of the Whitewater investigation. Webb Hubbell, a college football hero and former chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court, recently completed a prison term for defrauding legal clients. Vince Foster apparently buckled under the pressure of Washington political infighting and killed himself, conspiracy theories to the contrary.

“When the national press comes into a previously unexposed area, they find things. Some of the things they find are not real. Some are things that are bad, but would not have been revealed otherwise,” Mitchell said. The result is a trail of ruined lives.

“Maybe there was a soft underbelly down there. We found out that Webb was not such a nice guy. It’s a little discouraging. Jim Guy Tucker was a superb governor,” said Mitchell, who practices law in the Augusta area.

One wonders how Mainers would have reacted to the same type of muckraking had Margaret Chase Smith or Ed Muskie won the presidency. Mrs. Smith’s relationship with her chief of staff would have been fodder for today’s tabloids. Washington-based investigative reporters would have gone after Muskie’s ties to Fred H. Vahlsing’s ill-fated sugar beet refinery project.

The truth was, Sen. Smith shared a duplex with and loved but never married her political confidant, retired Gen. Bill Lewis. Muskie was just one of many politicians in both parties who supported Vahlsing’s costly losing gamble to make sugar beets the second cash crop of Aroostook County.

The reaction of most Mainers would have been, “So what?”

Outsiders would have been less sanguine. C.G. Lichtenberg, a German philosopher, observed, “The most dangerous untruths are truths slightly distorted.” — WASHINGTON John Day’s e-mail address is

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

comments for this post are closed

You may also like