The family and some relatives had just sat down to Thanksgiving dinner when my cousin, Jim, an Air Force veteran, leaned earnestly across the table. "So," he said, "first Clinton sold overnights in the Lincoln bedroom to big party donors. Now I understand he's selling burial plots at Arlington National Cemetery. Tell me, is nothing sacred in this administration anymore?"
As a Washington reporter, I'm often called upon by family and friends back home to explain goings-on inside the Beltway. This one should have been easy. The Arlington accusation had been proven false, I replied. End of story. Or so I thought.
"Right," Jim scoffed, "then how come it's still all over the radio?"
How indeed? Inside the Beltway, the Arlington cemetery story had been discredited as a lame attempt at partisan political poisoning. Here in Connecticut -- and it seems elsewhere -- the poison is still potent. How this particular phony scandal grew such sturdy legs is a grim but instructive tale of how presidential character assassination is as alive and kicking now as when President Clinton first entered the White House five years ago.
First, the smear:
On Nov. 18, an advance copy of Insight, a magazine operated by the ultra-conservative Washington Times, was circulated to various right-wing talk-radio hosts across the country. Featured was an article by managing editor Paul Rodriguez alleging that "dozens of big-time political donors or friends of the Clintons" received waivers to have themselves or family members buried at Arlington National Cemetery, America's most hallowed burial ground. Interestingly, the article, titled "Is There Nothing Sacred?" failed to mention a single name.
On the same day, Rep. Terry Everett, R-Ala., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, issued a press release "reaffirming the interest of his subcommittee" in the Arlington National Cemetery allegations. Adding a congressional imprimatur to Insight's allegations, Everett noted that his subcommittee had "found some questionable waivers made in recent years."
Over the next two days, far-right talk-radio hosts, including Rush Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy, repeated the Insight magazine charges on the air across the nation. On Nov. 20, a White House denial of the Insight report was carried by the New York Times, the Washington Post and other major press outlets. As happens with such stories, the denial was dwarfed by the details of the charges themselves.
Despite the denials, Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson began waving the bloody shirt. "This has to represent one of the most despicable political schemes in recent history," he said in a Nov. 20 statement. "The ground at Arlington has been sanctified by the blood of those who served with pride, fought and died, and gave themselves to preserve the American ideal of liberty. For this hallowed ground to be so debased in the pursuit of campaign cash is a perversion of common decency."
With an "Arlingtongate" now in the making, House Speaker Newt Gingrich piled on, attacking Clinton over the alleged burial waivers and threatening to subpoena people. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., released a letter to Clinton in which he asked the president to "respond personally to the public" regarding the allegations. Specter also wrote that "it appears that this is a matter which will warrant a Committee hearing."
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Now for the facts:
On Nov. 21, Secretary of the Army Togo West issued a statement -- which somehow got lost amid the media feeding frenzy -- that listed the names of 69 individuals who received waivers to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery since 1993, when Clinton took office. Of the 69,
Clinton granted a total of four waivers -- for former Supreme Court
Justice Thurgood Marshall; Elvera Burger, the widow of Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger; J.W. Seale, a U.S. Army veteran killed while on an undercover mission in Peru as a Drug Enforcement Agent; and Henry Daly, a Marine Corps veteran killed in the line of duty while serving as a Washington, D.C.,
It was West who granted the other 65 waivers, the majority to spouses who, like Mrs. Burger, were buried with their husbands, or to individuals whose distinguished military or other government service warranted exceptions.
Moreover, a check of Federal Election Commission records showed that of the 69 names, only one -- former Ambassador Larry Lawrence -- was a donor to the Democratic National Committee. Lawrence's family received permission to bury him at Arlington because he had served in the Merchant Marine during World War II, had been wounded in a German torpedo attack on his ship just prior to D-Day and had died while serving as U.S. ambassador to Switzerland.
One more thing:
Rep. Everett, who raised the unfounded smear to the level of congressional concern, admitted that he has known about the 69 waivers since June, when the Pentagon routinely turned over
its records to Everett's subcommittee. Amazingly, as Rep. Everett further acknowledged, he never bothered to check the names
against Federal Election Committee records to corroborate whether any had actually been political donors.
And what of RNC chairman Jim Nicholson? Did he try to check his facts before calling the late Ambassador Lawrence, the wounded World War II veteran who died at his diplomatic post in Bern, "a major Democratic donor who never served in the Armed Forces"? And come to think of it, whatever happened to Insight's "dozens of big-time
political donors or friends of the Clintons" who supposedly received waivers to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery?
When I got back to Washington from
the Thanksgiving holiday, I called Rep. Everett, RNC chairman Nicholson and Rodriguez, the author of the original story. And I called and called again. I left four messages on the voice mail of Everett's spokesman, Mike Lewis, and two each with the secretaries of Nicholson and Rodriguez. To date, they have not returned my calls.
And why should they? They've already accomplished what they
intended -- to sow another seed of Clinton scandal in the
American public's mind. Who cares if it's true? The real point is, will it stick?
Maybe the next time I call the Republican National Committee or Rep. Everett's office, I'll tell them my name is Jim, that I'm an Air Force veteran from Connecticut and that I want to make a campaign donation in support of their efforts to keep Arlington pure and unpoliticized. That ought to get my calls returned.