Column: I Wonder Where I Heard that Before

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Mr. Carpenter is a writer and doctoral candidate in American history at the University of Illinois and a columnist for HNN.

I just finished reading a fiery op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times concerning the White House’s obsession with hiding task force records from the public. The author was livid, writing that of all the things that could threaten this administration’s carefully polished image, “there are no greater dangers than the secret files of the ... task force, which will reveal a cynical president defrauding the public in behalf of special interests.” This was good stuff, my kind of stuff. I read on.

11The writer declared that when it came to the White House’s refusal to turn over task force documents, there were “more important” considerations involved than “specific legal issues.” Of supreme consideration was that the matter pertained to the public’s well being, and thus it had the right to know. Yet the administration’s recalcitrance had thrown its “candor” into serious question and exposed its “cynical manipulation” of public concerns “in order to benefit special interests allied with” the White House. Sadly, he wrote, the administration had resorted “to implausible argument by a desperate need to keep the public from finding out about the special-interest groups that prepared” the task force’s policy.

11The op-ed piece contained more than one man’s opinion. It relied on legal fact as well, pointing out that “the Federal Advisory Committee Act requires task forces not wholly composed of federal employees to meet in public.” When the law suit seeking to compel the White House to release its records prevails, surmised the editorialist, “the secret proceedings of the task force will be made public” and “the opened files will expose the [administration] to charges of public deception that will make Richard Nixon’s transgressions look mild in comparison.” Pretty strong words.

11So what, you conclude. Merely another strident, left-wing scrivener out to do a number on Bush II. But you would be wrong.

If you haven’t already guessed, the editorial had nothing to do with the present administration. Rather, it was from July, 1994 and addressed the Clinton administration’s initial refusal to turn over documents relating to its health care task force, which had operated under the supervision of de facto Vice-President Hillary. It too had decided that the public’s need to know took a back seat to preferred closed meetings. As a result, as the Washington Post wrote at the time, “conservative groups critical of the task force’s secrecy” filed suit in federal court demanding disclosure. The Clintons relented in December, before the law suit concluded, and “in the spirit of putting this case behind us” released the documents in question. That closed the case and everyone went home happy.

And the editorial’s author? That was one Paul Craig Roberts, a fellow at the ultraconservative think tank, the Cato Institute. For Paul, this wasn’t just your garden-variety skullduggery, but skullduggery beyond even the ken of Richard Nixon that likely and properly would land the corrupt Arkansas couple in Sing Sing. Recalling the philosophical consistency of today’s principled right-wing outfits, naturally I scurried off to the Institute’s website expecting to find on the front page a similarly worded diatribe against the imperial intransigence of Bush II. You will be dismayed and, no doubt, shocked to learn that I saw not a word about it. When the Clintons held their health-care cards close to the chest, the Institute was justifiably outraged at the violation of the public’s trust. But it seems that when Bush II is hell-bent on plopping an oil rig on the Washington Monument’s lawn or some such damn fool thing without telling us why, that’s a matter for editorial discretion.

The Clinton administration released everything--13 boxes full of paper--even more than the plaintiffs sought in court. Whether it did so in the spirit of integrity or not is beside the point. The fact is, it released the records and therefore questions about the influence of special-interest groups on policy could be answered. Likewise, by way of understatement, there are legitimate questions about Bush II’s energy policy and how it came to be. Despite the White House’s misrepresentation of the General Accounting Office’s demands, the GAO is not seeking everything, not even the task force’s minutes and notes. It only wants the history of “who met with whom, when and about what.” To this the administration says to the GAO and taxpaying public, “Trust us and butt out.”

W. has defended his decision with familiar eloquence. Said he, “We’re not going to let the ability for us to discuss matters between ourselves to become eroded.” Inherent in that delightful syntax was a Freudian slip. Evidently in the president’s mind, “ourselves” means not just the executive branch, but close members of private industry as well, since they were the only ones with whom the executive branch met “to discuss matters.” “Ourselves” excludes, however, members of environmental groups, and you, and me. It’s just W., Dick, and industrial capitalists in need of a helping hand; just one small happy family freely passing the butter.

In 1951, when the GAO moved into new headquarters, President Harry Truman was on hand to deliver the dedication speech. He said some in the government wrongly thought of the GAO as a kind of stick-in-the-mud, a party-pooper, or as he put it, “a bugaboo that keeps them from doing what they want to do.” In this case they would be right--and rightly so.

© Copyright 2001 P. M. Carpenter

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More Comments:

Roger Zeimet - 2/25/2002

OK. When can we expect to see a similar comment from the CATO Institute on the Cheney Task Force imbroglio? Also, what about the Bush II administration's efforts to tie up all Presidential papers from Reagan onward?

Barrett Archer - 2/7/2002

For what it's worth, the Cato Institute is not an "ultraconservative" think tank. It's libertarian. In fact, the outright reject the "conservative" label on their web site. Furthermore, if Mr. Carpenter studied politics closely (ie. reading more than "The Progressive" and his Chomskey reader), he'd realize that the Right is hemmoraging over the conservative/libertarain divide. Conservatives, naturally, are supporting most of Bush's big-government, police-state, perpetual war efforts. Libertarians have been highly critical of Bush. Not that I'm surprised that Mr. Carpenter would make such a mistake. Like most academics, he can make distinctions between 40 different types of leftism (socialism, democratic socialism, Marxism, neo-Marxism, post-Marxism, etc), but everything on the right is "ultraconservative."

It also seems to me he's done this "they're really talking about Clinton" rope-a-dope column before, too.