A role model for bipartisanship?

Bush attorney Ted Olson is the link between impeachment and the Florida mess; Bush had better hope Gore backers don't mimic Olson's scorched-earth crusade against the sitting president.

By Joe Conason

Published December 6, 2000 1:06AM (EST)

As George W. Bush moves closer to uncontested occupancy of the Oval Office, the tone of Republican rhetoric will shift quickly from partisan discord to patriotic harmony. The threats of domestic recession and foreign adversaries are sure to be invoked to dispel anger about Bush's dubious victory. Insults will give way to pleas for national unity.

Pundits and politicians of the right will mount an emotional, flag-waving campaign to confer "legitimacy" on a candidate who lost the popular vote. And they will pretend to believe that our traditions demand allegiance to the president-elect, regardless of how he wangled the job.

To anyone who suffers from the amnesia that afflicts American politics, such syrupy appeals may sound attractive. But those who remember how leading Republicans have conducted themselves over the past eight years (let alone the past four weeks) are unlikely to be quite so susceptible to those star-spangled clichés. Bill Clinton won two presidential elections without dispute, piling up large voter pluralities and electoral landslides. Yet his mandate was disdained virtually from the day he took office by Republicans and conservatives who saw his election as a fluke and viewed him as a usurper.

That disregard for democratic authority culminated in impeachment only after ugly, ubiquitous and unrelenting efforts at every other level to ruin Clinton's presidency. If any reminder of that crusade -- and its connection with the nasty battle in Florida -- were necessary at this late date, the personification of the long drive to undermine the president appeared before the Supreme Court last Friday to argue on behalf of Bush. His name, of course, is Theodore B. Olson.

In recent press accounts Olson has often been portrayed as a superb appellate attorney of Republican persuasion and conservative inclination, an advocate against affirmative action and a defense lawyer for former President Reagan. Accurate but ludicrously incomplete, that description omits his fervent activism against the Clinton administration. Wherever Republicans gathered to scheme against the president, Olson was almost certain to be present. And if he wasn't there, his wife Barbara Olson usually was -- toiling as a congressional aide in both the Travelgate and campaign finance investigations, and then as a television pundit during the Lewinsky investigation.

As the New Yorker magazine put it, "If you believe that there is such a thing as a right-wing conspiracy to get the President, then Ted and Barbara Olson's Great Falls, Virginia, home could be its cocktail headquaters."

Indeed, Olson went considerably beyond ordinary lawyering and lobbying in his anti-Clinton activism. Less than a year after Clinton's inauguration, the movement to depose him started to take shape in the downtown Washington law offices of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, the influential GOP-leaning firm where Olson is among the most important partners.

Under the auspices of the American Spectator magazine, with money provided by right-wing billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, Olson and several associates launched the plan that later became notorious as the "Arkansas Project." What began as a support network for David Hale, the crooked Little Rock, Ark., judge who had accused Clinton of pressuring him to make an illegal loan, eventually became a wide-ranging, multimillion-dollar project to discredit the president, the first lady and their friends.

Using a pen name, Olson himself wrote several essays for the Spectator attacking Clinton as a Mafia-style gangster. The first of those rather vicious pieces appeared in February 1994, alleging a wide variety of criminal offenses by Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bernard Nussbaum, Webster Hubbell and Betsey Wright. (Only Hubbell was ever convicted of any crime, though even he wasn't charged of any of the felonies suggested in Olson's pseudonymous prosecution memo.)

Later, Olson secretly advised the attorneys for Paula Jones as they prepared their successful Supreme Court argument that her lawsuit should be permitted to proceed against a sitting president. He was the éminence grise behind the network of young conservative lawyers known as the "elves" who continued to assist Jones; like Olson, they too were stalwarts of the conservative Federalist Society, whose Washington chapter he chairs. And his close friend and former law partner, Kenneth W. Starr, could rely upon Ted and Barbara Olson to defend him publicly against White House accusations that the independent counsel was an ideological avenger determined to destroy the president by any means possible.

Although the furious exertions of Olson and his comrades fell short of their ultimate goal, they did terrible damage to the Clintons and the country. What remains is the scorched political landscape of the Clinton era, an inhospitable terrain for bipartisanship and a hard place to cultivate acceptance of a new president who may or may not have won one of the closest elections in American history.

In a prospective Bush administration, Ted Olson's dogged service to the conservative cause and the current campaign may lead to great rewards. Leaving aside his angry partisanship, he would be a highly qualified contender for the post of attorney general or a seat on the Supreme Court. But for now, at least, he stands as a symbol of stubborn resistance to a duly elected president whose "legitimacy" Olson and his friends never accepted at all. His client, the would-be president elect, must hope none of Gore's backers decide to mimic Olson and his GOP elves.

Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

MORE FROM Joe Conason

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2000 Elections Al Gore George W. Bush