A GOP attack dog bites the dust

It took the Hubbell tapes disaster to make Dan "Scumbag" Burton part with Clinton-hating ideologue David Bossie.


David Corn
May 7, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

WASHINGTON -- Ten days ago, David Bossie looked happy. Decked out in a tux, he was pushing his way through the very exclusive Vanity Fair reception following the White House correspondents dinner, slipping past Hollywood celebs and big-time Washington players, carrying two drinks. "Need those after the week you had?" I asked. Bossie's boss, Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., had days before called the president a "scumbag." That was not the best PR for a conservative congressman who has had trouble convincing the public that his all-over-the-map probe of Clinton is not a partisan witch hunt.

"Not worried, not worried about it," replied an upbeat Bossie, who was the chief investigator for Burton's House committee investigating Clinton-Gore campaign finances. "I'm happy. We got great stuff coming up. Great stuff. You just wait."

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It's not clear whether that "great stuff" was the prison tapes of Webster Hubbell. But the furor that their release has created -- especially in their doctored form -- resulted in Wednesday's sudden firing of Bossie from Burton's committee. And a number of Democrats and White House aides were delighted to see the demise of this right-wing attack dog who has long been peddling outlandish anti-Clinton conspiracy theories to anyone who would listen.

Before joining the government, Bossie worked for Citizens United, a hardball right-wing outfit best known for producing the 1988 Willie Horton ad that suggested Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, while governor of Massachusetts, was responsible for letting a violent criminal out of prison. Bossie and his Citizens United gang also made a mark in the 1992 campaign, when it produced an ad featuring Gennifer Flowers and sent out a fund-raising letter that gave the impression it was tied to the official Bush campaign. (The Bush campaign asked the Federal Elections Committee to shut down Bossie's political action committee.) Bossie and his allies scurried across Arkansas in search of sensational information on Clinton; at one point, Bossie got into a fistfight in Arkansas with a private detective who claimed Bossie had welshed on a $10,000 payment for anti-Clinton material.

Bossie encouraged Burton to question the finding that White House aide Vince Foster had killed himself. Then Bossie hit the government payroll, as an aide to Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth, a member of the Senate Whitewater Committee. There, Bossie irritated fellow Republicans by relentlessly leaking information. On one occasion, he requested a federal judge's financial records immediately before the judge was to rule on a case brought by independent counsel Kenneth Starr against Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker -- a move that the judge said was an act of intimidation, and ultimately led to the judge's removal.

From time to time, Bossie would call me and pitch all sorts of unconventional views about Whitewater and related scandals. Once he shared with me the "lead" that Foster's death was connected to an Israeli intelligence operation. When Burton signed up Bossie after the Senate Whitewater Committee fizzled, Clintonites breathed a sigh of relief: It was a sign that the Burton investigation would not be serious. In fact, the inquiry never has had much traction -- and Democratic committee aides blame Bossie for being in over his head.

At the previous year's Vanity Fair party, Bossie promised that the Burton investigation would soon produce evidence of Chinese espionage at the highest levels of the government. He said the real story was not a campaign finance tale but a spy scandal. "This is going to bring them all down," he said in a melodramatic tone. "It's the most serious scandal ever. You'll see." I never did. At the most recent reception, he again claimed that a big bang was coming. Before he walked off, Bossie tossed out that familiar phrase, "You'll see."

If what Bossie had in mind was the Webster Hubbell tapes that he and Burton were preparing for release, then these have turned out to be a disaster for Burton and Bossie. Just when Newt Gingrich was trying to increase the scandal pressure on Clinton, Burton and Bossie embarrassed themselves and the GOP by making public selective portions of the Hubbell tapes. Remarks that indicated Hillary Clinton did no wrong were left out of the initial release. In several instances the transcripts did not match the actual recordings, and these errors seemed almost willful, as if they were intended to unfairly implicate Hubbell and the Clintons. Rather than confirming Clinton wrongdoing, they confirmed long-standing Democratic charges that the Burton investigation was hopelessly biased -- and it was Bossie himself who had insisted on their release, over the objections of more prudent committee staffers. After several days of firestorm, Bossie was removed -- reportedly because Republican House leaders (some of whom already questioned Burton's ability to handle the Democrats on his committee) forced Burton to bounce him.

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The real question is, what took so long? Since Burton began his inquiry, Democratic members of the committee and their aides have puzzled over his dependence on Bossie. As the investigation proceeded in a disorganized fashion, with an ever-changing focus and without much punch, Democrats wondered why Burton was so reliant on an ideologue who had never run a high-pressure, high-profile congressional probe. A year ago, John Rowley, the chief lawyer on the subcommittee, couldn't take it any longer and quit, decrying the "unrelenting, 'self-promoting' actions" of Bossie as an obstacle to "the standards of professional conduct." Because of Bossie, Rowley said, he could not run a "professional, credible investigation." Yet Burton said goodbye to the well-regarded Rowley and stood by Bossie. It took the tape flap, which humiliated the GOP and threatened his own position as head of the investigation, to make Burton finally let Bossie go.

For the moment, the Burton inquiry seems in chaos. This may be good news for the Clinton White House. But aides there, while relishing Bossie's downfall, were not entirely gleeful. "In a way, we're really sad to see him go," says one Clinton aide. Why? Because with Bossie gone, there is a better chance that Burton might actually be able to run a respectable investigation. "It's still going to be hard for Burton to pull that off," the aide says. "But with Bossie there, it was like we had an insurance policy."


David Corn

David Corn is the Washington editor of the Nation, a columnist for the New York Press and author of a political suspense novel, "Deep Background" (St.Martin's Press).

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