Archive for Saturday, March 22, 1997

SATURDAY COLUMN

March 22, 1997

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What a difference a few years and different political party affiliations seem to make in Washington.

Not too many years ago, it was perfectly all right, in fact the duty and obligation, of Democratic senators to be as tough-minded and as thorough as possible in their confirmation hearings for Judge Robert Bork and, later, Judge Clarence Thomas for seats on the U.S. Supreme Court.

The hearings were mean, personal and ugly.

Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware had a field day in chairing the hearings on Bork and Thomas who had been nominated by Presidents Reagan and Bush. Seldom has partisan politics and personal philosophies about the law and the role of the Supreme Court been so blatant as during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for these two men.

Judge Bork probably was better qualified to be a Supreme Court justice than the majority of others who have served on the nation's top court. But because he believed in following the Constitution and the Bill of Rights rather than using the court to make new law, Bork's nomination was defeated by Biden and his fellow Democrats. It was a brutal battle.

No one really cared much about Justice Thomas' qualifications for the court. Rather, his opponents used every possible personal attack on the man with little concern about the honesty and reliability of many witnesses who were brought in to try to soil his personal, private record. It is doubtful whether there ever has been a more mean-spirited, personal attack on an individual nominated for the court than what Thomas had to endure.

Now, with Tony Lake's decision to withdraw his nomination as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, congressional Democrats and President Clinton are using every opportunity to accuse Republicans of engaging in a "character assassination" of Lake. Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle said Republicans should apologize for their action against Lake. He said he had never seen such shoddy treatment of a nominee and that Lake had been forced to suffer every indignity known.

He and President Clinton said the process is not fair, that Lake was a victim of political destruction, that no one should have to endure what he has endured and that those opposed to Lake's appointment were engaged in political sniping.

Why weren't these same concerns raised when Clarence Thomas was the target of the most lurid attacks on his personal character. Likewise, those opposed to Bork used every means to defeat his nomination.

There are others such as the late John Tower who was subjected to mean attacks and many questions about his personal behavior after being nominated as secretary of defense.

There are those who say GOP efforts to learn more about Lake, his performance as national security adviser, his questionable stock investments, his failure to notify Congress about Iranian arms sales to Bosnia and his failure to be aware of the latest charges of Chinese efforts to buy influence in the White House are merely a smokescreen in a vicious game of tit-for-tat by partisan Republicans. They claim GOP leaders are determined to get even for the way Senate Democrats treated the Bork, Thomas and Tower nominations.

President Clinton said, "It's past time for all of us to stop remembering who shot first and why. The cycle of political destruction must end."

This seems to be the constant theme of Clinton and his inner circle. After the president used the White House to raise huge amounts of money to get elected and after he is through seeking public elective office, Clinton is quick to suggest new policies on fund raising. He's almost saying, "Forget what I have done in the past, forget how I cheapened the White House and the office of the president, forget how I engaged in questionable actions to get elected. Put this all in the past." Clinton is implying, "Now that I'm in office, I'm calling on Ambassador Mondale and Senator Kassebaum Baker to suggest ways to correct this fund-raising mess."

Likewise, concerning the problems associated with gaining confirmation of presidential nominees, Clinton now is calling for more civility, asking those in the Senate to give a nominee the "benefit of the doubt" and less partisan confirmation hearings.

Clinton has three more years to make his nominations, and he wants to have those on various Senate committees be far more lenient and polite in their questioning. Never mind how Democrats may have behaved in the past.

There may have been questions involving Lake's private life, but this writer is not aware of such actions nor has he read of any such behavior by GOP senators. Again, consider what Justice Thomas endured.

It would be great if past actions and behavior could be forgotten, with the slate wiped clean and all senators and House members becoming truly focused on doing what is best for the country rather than engaging in highly partisan politics. This would be particularly helpful in the nomination and confirmation process of many nominees for critically important positions.

In this nomination process, the president sets the stage and sets the standard for the quality of individuals to be nominated. His goal should be to select the best possible individuals for every cabinet and judicial post, as well as for those other offices which the president has the authority to fill. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Both Democratic and Republican presidents are caught in a game of making sure everything is "politically correct" in their slate of nominees. Because of that, gender, age, race, religion, political party affiliation and financial generosity all play a role in the selection and nomination process.

What has gone on in the past with the Bork and Thomas nominations and now with Democrats upset over the Lake confirmation process, might cause all members of Congress to adopt a better, fairer and more reasonable approach to the confirmation process. Otherwise, if the bitterness, tit-for-tat attitude and mean-spirited manner continue to escalate, who will agree to be nominated for these important positions?

As noted above, the entire process, if it is to be respected by members of Congress and the public, starts with the president and the caliber of individuals he nominates.

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