Twenty-four years ago, a young congressman spelled out the type of allegations justifying the removal of the president of the United States.
His name was William S. Cohen.
In July 1974, with Richard Nixon’s White House tottering on the edge of destruction, Cohen went before a statewide television hookup and asked Maine residents to rhetorically imagine that their governor, then Kenneth M. Curtis, had undertaken the following actions:
Kept an enemies list.
Ordered state agencies to investigate those critical of his speeches or policies.
Asked aides to lie before legislative committees and judicial bodies.
Approved a burglary to smear and destroy the credibility of a private citizen.
Used confidential grand jury data to help prevent the criminal conviction of his key aides.
Today, Cohen is a member of President Clinton’s Cabinet. Back then, he concluded that Richard Nixon’s callous abuse of power in covering up something Nixon defenders termed a “second-rate burglary” met the test of an impeachable offense. Going down Cohen’s checklist, only the allegation of pressuring “aides to lie” seems to meet the test of an impeachable offense involving Clinton. On the other hand, ask yourselves this hypothetical question:
Could Gov. Angus King survive a scandal in which there was credible circumstantial evidence that he seduced a young intern assigned to his office — then pressured her to lie under oath to keep the affair secret, while political allies and high King administration officials canvassed the state trying to place her in a desirable job?
His 81 percent favorable polling ratings to the contrary, King would be gone before Groundhog Day.
There’s a reason for that. On the day they took office, Angus King and Bill Clinton swore on a Bible to uphold their respective constitutions. The governor and president appoint all of the judges and top legal enforcement officials. It’s those people who implement the nation’s rule of law. State legislators, police officers and the men and women of the military take similar oaths and are subject to removal from office and criminal charges if they’re caught lying to authorities or urging others to commit perjury and obstruct justice.
It’s the lying, even about subjects as sensitive as so-called “zipper issues,” that is most relevant. Henry Cisneros, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, faces jail after being found guilty of giving false statements to FBI agents about hush money he paid his former mistress. First Lt. Kelly Flinn, the B-52 pilot, was drummed out of the Air Force because she lied about having an affair with an enlisted man.
In a nation of laws, no man or woman is above the law. Obviously, the stakes are much higher with Clinton than for a Cabinet member or bomber pilot. And there are substantial reasons for giving pause.
Many of the highly publicized allegations similar to the kind leveled at Clinton have proved to be hoaxes. A black teen-ager named Tawana Brawley inflamed racial tensions in the New York City area in 1987 by claiming she was raped by white police officers in Dutchess County, N.Y., and left by them in a garbage container. A grand jury found no evidence supporting Brawley’s charges of a sexual attack as well as no evidence that police tried to cover up the incident.
Last year an exotic dancer, who claimed she was videotaped while being raped by two Dallas Cowboys stars, admitted she lied to extort money from the players. A woman falsely claiming to be Bill Cosby’s out-of-wedlock daughter was sent to jail for trying to extort $40 million from the television star.
That said, the conventional Washington wisdom Friday was that Clinton may be forced to resign the presidency if he fails before his scheduled State of the Union address Tuesday to come up with persuasive explanations for the sordid tales of sex, lies and audiotapes coming from Washington. White House aides have privately said only surrogates will address the allegations in the next few days.
That has prompted speculation among Washington political consultants about which political figure Al Gore would choose to fill the vice presidency should Clinton resign before his term is up.
Interestingly, two Maine politicians might be part of that equation. The person to back up a President Gore would have to be seen as an ethically pure figure who could help heal the deep partisan political wounds caused by a presidential resignation. That person would have to be seen as qualified to immediately assume the presidency should something happen to Gore and would have to be somebody Gore trusts completely.
Cohen, the only Republican in the Clinton-Gore inner circle, voted to impeach Richard Nixon. No scandal has ever touched him. As secretary of defense, Cohen already is in the constitutional line of presidential succession — behind House Speaker Newt Gingrich, 95-year-old Senate President Pro Tempore Strom Thurmond, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. It was Gore who argued the strongest for Clinton to reach across party lines to choose Cohen as secretary of defense.
Gore-Cohen, a “national unity” ticket?
I’m told, “Absolutely no chance.”
“Dick Gephardt would clean Gore’s clock if he named a Republican to the ticket,” two consultants told me. Gephardt, the House minority leader, is considered Gore’s most likely presidential primary opponent.
Former Sen. George Mitchell makes more sense. Mitchell, it was pointed out, is trusted by both the Gephardt old-line liberal faction and the “new Democratic” coalition forged by Clinton and Gore. Like Cohen, he is well-respected in inner Washington circles. Mitchell has added to his reputation after leaving the Senate by attempting to negotiate a peace agreement in Northern Ireland, but has taken some political hits for becoming a lobbyist for the tobacco industry.
Arguing against Mitchell is the fact he would bring only a handful of electoral votes to the table. Gore must carry most of the large population battleground states like Florida and California to have any chance of holding the presidency for Democrats in 2000.
Fasten your seat belts.
Washington hasn’t seen days like this since Dick Nixon limped out of the city, complaining he was the victim of a mad-dog press corps and political witch hunt. — WASHINGTON
John Day’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org