Why the Clinton Scandals Were a Bigger Deal Than the Obama Ones

Or, how to tell a personal scandal from a policy controversy
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Reuters

President Obama visited the Jersey Shore Tuesday, where Gov. Chris Christie presented him with a stuffed bear at an arcade and the two declared the shore open for business after seven months of post-Hurricane Sandy repairs. It played as a nice respite for the president after a couple of weeks of getting hammered in Washington by Republicans and members of the press. But the reality is that no matter how fierce the arguments in Washington about the triad of administration scandals, none of them reach even the level of the Clinton scandals of the 1990s, let alone some of the other stuff they are being compared to.

The main difference is this: In contrast to the highly personal nature of the Clinton scandals, none of the so-called Obama scandals involve direct actions by the president or his wife, let alone their romantic or financial dealings before or during their time in office. Instead, the controversies swirling around the administration all involve the conduct of individuals within the federal government overseen by Obama as the head of the executive branch.

Further, while President Clinton's second term was dominated by scandal stories, it's important to recall that the Clinton scandals actually reached such a pitch early in his first term that less than a year after taking office, Attorney General Janet Reno appointed special prosecutor Robert B. Fiske Jr. to look into the Whitewater brouhaha. By August 1994, Fiske had been replaced by former George H.W. Bush Solicitor General Ken Starr, who would go on to conduct such an elaborate array of investigations for the next five years that it flummoxed Washington and ensnared a broad array of Clinton's Arkansas associates before finally, more than three years in, unearthing Monica Lewinsky and prompting congressional impeachment proceedings.

Indeed, before the general election of 1996, which saw Clinton triumph over Republican opponent Bob Dole, at least three trials had been held stemming from Starr's Whitewater investigations -- trials and investigations that involved sworn testimony by both the president and the first lady. Long before the Lewinsky scandal erupted into public view, Clinton friends and former business partners James and Susan McDouglas, along with Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, were convicted on fraud and conspiracy charges related to a failed savings and loan association the McDougals ran after the failure of the 1978 Whitewater development land deal they'd worked on with the Clintons. Webster Hubbell -- at one time Clinton's White House liason to the Justice Department and later associate attorney general -- also spent years entangled in legal proceedings over his billing practices at the Rose Law Firm where Hillary Clinton also had worked, as well as his taxes. In 1994 he was convicted of fraud, and in 1999 entered into a plea deal that eventually led to jail time, thanks to the Starr-office prosecutions.

Also worth remembering: All of this was not enough to bring the president down, and Clinton was in 1999 acquitted of high crimes and misdemeanors in the Lewinsky investigation. The Senate couldn't even get enough support to pass a censure bill.

Here's how the Washington Post, which owned the Clinton scandal stories in a way hard to imagine now, described the array of pre-Lewinsky administration controversies in its 2000 Whitewater special report:

  • A fraudulent $300,000 federally backed loan to Susan McDougal, some of which went into Whitewater Development Corp. David Hale, a former Little Rock judge whose company issued the loan, told investigators that Bill Clinton pressured him to do so.
  • The mysterious disappearance and rediscovery of billing records showing the extent of Hillary Clinton's legal work for McDougal's savings and loan. Missing and under subpoena for two years, they turned up in January 1996 in the Clintons' private quarters at the White House.
  • The firing of seven members of the White House travel office in 1993, possibly to make room for Clinton friends -- followed by an FBI investigation of the office, allegedly opened under pressure from the White House to justify the firings. Sometimes called "Travelgate."
  • The 1993 suicide of White House counsel Vincent Foster, hard on the heels of the travel-office imbroglio and his filing of delinquent Whitewater Corp. tax returns.
  • The collection of hundreds of confidential FBI files on prominent Republicans by a minor White House operative in 1993 and 1994. Sometimes called "Filegate."
  • The more than $700,000 paid to former associate attorney general Webster L. Hubbell, most of it from friends of President Clinton and Democratic Party supporters, just as the former law partner of Hillary Clinton was coming under intense scrutiny by Whitewater investigators.

Additionally there were scandals over: overnight stays in the White House Lincoln Bedroom by campaign donors, illegal campaign donations (as from John Huang and Indonesian banker James Riady), and, most memorably, the sex and perjury scandal involving Lewinsky, a former White House intern.

All of these scandals had a unifying theme: They either started in the White House or involved close personal associates or campaign donors of Bill and Hillary Clinton.

A contemporary equivalent of the Clinton scandals would be if, say, the Obama Justice Department had in 2010 appointed a special prosecutor to look into the president's pre-White House dealings with Tony Rezko -- a former Obama fundraiser convicted on corruption and extortion charges in 2011 -- or the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

But how crazy would today's Republican House have looked if it had started holding hearings on Rezko or Wright in January 2011? Obama's personal dealings were all litigated during the campaigns, and America, with two major wars then still in progress and an economy barely out of its free fall, would have had no appetite early in the president's first term for an expansive, open-ended investigation into the one-time personal associates of their historic and popular new leader.

Instead Obama has a second-term controversy over Benghazi -- which is to say, a policy controversy about how to keep American diplomatic personnel safe in dangerous countries with weak states when they venture outside embassy walls -- as well as the recent one-week controversy over the interagency editing of early talking points on the attack. He's got a controversy over the Department of Justice's investigations into leakers, whistleblowers, and reporters that extends up to the level of the attorney general. And he's got a real policy and bureaucratic management problem on his hands in the form of the IRS's decision to target Tea Party-type groups applying for tax-exempt status for special screening.

These controversies are not just different from the Clinton scandals in degree, they are different in kind. They are managerial controversies involving ground-level conduct of government business by bureaucrats little-known outside their agencies (who'd ever heard of Lois Lerner a month ago?). And that's how they are being handled -- through policy guidance, policy reviews, and the resignation of personnel at the State Department and the IRS who oversaw the troubled divisions responsible for the high-visibility agency failures. There will likely be more resignations at the IRS, and there will certainly be more congressional hearings. But these hearings will be useful, because they are about the proper functioning of an agency that touches every American. And that, perhaps, is the greatest difference between the Clinton scandals and the Obama Administration controversies. Because the latter are policy and management controversies, rather than personal values scandals, some lasting good may yet come of them.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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