To Barack Obama's most excitable adversaries, the firing of the Americorps inspector general that the president ordered last week is an incipient scandal, as loud and thrilling as Whitewater once was. Their fond memories of that ancient controversy (and its many sequels) were revived by the sudden dismissal of Gerald Walpin, a Bush administration appointee who has depicted himself as the victim of a political conspiracy. Insinuations and smears abound already -- including an attempt by the usual suspects to drag the first lady into the mud, Hillary-style, on the basis of anonymous allegations.
The latest accusations of White House impropriety are indeed reminiscent of the Clinton wars. But before conservatives spin themselves into a grand mal frenzy, they ought to understand that the strongest parallels between "Walpingate" and Whitewater are the palpable flimsiness of the charges and the questionable motives of the chief accuser. Unless there is much more to this story than what responsible journalists have found so far, the buzzing chatter on the right will soon subside into a disappointed murmur.
According to the wingnut version, Walpin is a heroic investigator who was ousted simply because he exposed misspending of hundreds of thousands of federal dollars by an Obama ally, namely former NBA star Kevin Johnson, who ran a nonprofit organization in Sacramento that received Americorps funding before he was elected mayor of the California state capital last fall. Walpin had to be removed on June 11, after he refused the president's request that he resign, because the White House was trying to cover up Johnson's wrongdoing and permit his city to receive federal stimulus money.
That simple and sinister scenario, like so many of the media descriptions of Whitewater, omits crucial facts.
It is true that Walpin found evidence of misuse and waste of Americorps funds by St. Hope Academy, a nonprofit community group started by Johnson after he retired from the NBA. It is true that Johnson and St. Hope have acknowledged that they must refund roughly half of the money that the group received from Washington. But it is also true that Walpin, a Republican activist attorney and trustee of the Federalist Society before Bush appointed him as inspector general, went well beyond his official mandate last year by publicizing supposed "criminal" wrongdoing by Johnson in the days before the Sacramento mayoral election.
And it is true as well that Lawrence Brown, the United States attorney in Northern California who received Walpin's findings, decided not to bring any criminal charges against Johnson and instead reached a settlement with him and St. Hope.
That settlement, filed last April, is a public document that reflects no great honor on Johnson, to put it mildly. But it also voided any possibility of a "coverup" by Obama or anyone in his administration. The case against Johnson had concluded months before the president acted to dismiss Walpin -- and in fact only drew attention to the case by doing so, as he must have known would happen.
Just as salient as the accusations against Johnson, however, are those brought by Brown against Walpin. A Republican named as the acting U.S. attorney by Bush, Brown filed a sharply worded complaint against Walpin with the oversight office for the federal inspectors general that charged him with ethical violations in an overzealous assault on Johnson and St. Hope. The U.S. attorney said that Walpin had "overstepped his authority by electing to provide my office with selective information and withholding other potentially significant information at the expense of determining the truth" -- in other words, Walpin had failed to provide substantive exculpatory facts to the U.S. attorney, while trying to push the government into opening a criminal probe of Johnson. During the election season in Sacramento, Brown noted that Walpin had sought publicity for his findings against Johnson in the local media before discussing them with the U.S. Attorney's Office, "hindering our investigation and handling of this matter."
Here the parallels with the early history of Whitewater seem nearly perfect. Brown's levelheaded handling of Walpin's exaggerated charges against Johnson are much like the dismissal of the original Whitewater complaints by Charles Banks, the U.S. attorney in Little Rock, Ark., and an honest Republican who refused to gin up a phony indictment of the Clintons before the 1992 election (and lost his job as a result). And Walpin's excessive zeal and lust for publicity bear a startling resemblance to the antics of L. Jean Lewis, the Resolution Trust Corp. official who concocted a series of implausible theories implicating the Clintons in the looting of an Arkansas savings and loan.
But Walpin, now in his late 70s, is a more intriguing figure than Lewis ever was. A hard-line conservative with a résumé that dates back to the early '60s, he was a curious choice for a position that requires dispassionate judgment and nonpartisan fairness. Although he developed a reputation as a highly capable litigator at a major New York City law firm, he has devoted much of his life to the causes of the extreme right, in particular as a trustee of the Federalist Society and as a director of the Center for Individual Rights, a right-wing law foundation devoted to overturning affirmative-action programs.
He appears to have continued acting in those capacities even after his appointment as inspector general. In November 2007, for instance, he delivered a speech at a Federalist Society function titled "Inherent Presidential Wartime Powers -- The Wiretap Program is Constitutional." Then in March 2008, he wrote an Op-Ed essay for the New York Daily News berating human rights lawyers at Yale Law School for pursuing a legal action against John Yoo, the former Justice Department official famous for his memoranda justifying torture of terror suspects.
Media profiles of Walpin now often mention his nasty quip at a November 2005 luncheon when he introduced Mitt Romney, then governor of Massachusetts, as the leader of a state dominated by "the modern-day KKK ... the Kennedy-Kerry Klan," a reference to the Bay State's U.S. senators, Ted Kennedy and John Kerry. Joking about Catholic politicians belonging to the Klan is always obnoxious, but Walpin was guilty of worse than poor taste.
Aside from its ferocious pursuit of lawsuits against affirmative action, the Center for Individual Rights, where Walpin served as director for many years, has displayed an enduring attraction to academic racism, or at least to its practitioners. That attraction led CIR to represent both Michael Levin, the notorious racist professor at the City University of New York, and Linda Gottfredson, an obscure University of Delaware professor whose negative research on African-Americans has made her a heroine to racial extremists. To finance this kind of litigation, CIR accepted thousands of dollars from the Pioneer Fund, a foundation dedicated to proving that blacks are racially inferior to whites and Asians -- in short, the intellectual equivalent of the KKK.
For that reason and many others, Walpin didn't fit very well within the Obama administration. He served at the pleasure of the president, who may well have taken some pleasure in ousting him -- and need make no apology if he did.