A Travesty of Democracy's Ethos

THE just-concluded presidential campaign will be remembered as one that started with attacks on the character of one of the two principal candidates and ended with an apparently unjustified, and at least unfair if not illegal, search of the same candidate's passport file.

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, now president-elect, obviously had to fend off more than verbal barrages from his competitors in the presidential race.

The culmination of Mr. Clinton's trial by political fire was the searching of his US passport file, with - according to the State Department's inspector general - the White House's knowledge. Top White House political aides were apparently aware of the search; they were contacted by the State Department official who supervised the search. The inspector general, however, said there was no evidence the search was instigated by anyone in the White House.

Such a records search might not be illegal or unethical under the right circumstances. But in this case a politically motivated search seems to have backfired on those responsible, though the effect of it on the outcome of the election apparently was negligible.

Acting Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger made clear, in a midweek news conference, that the State Department "does not belong" in politics. He voiced his determination to see that such misuse does not reoccur.

One sad thing about what might be called "passportgate" is the impact it could have on people's assessment of defeated President Bush and on history's measurement of his contribution to his country. In winning the presidency in 1988, Mr. Bush was the beneficiary of some questionable tactics by his campaign managers that apparently succeeded but were criticized by many as beyond the bounds of reasonable vote-seeking rhetoric.

Presidents' records go down in history. Bush leaves some notable ones, such as leadership in the Gulf war and in Arab-Israeli peace talks.

But people will also remember the Willie Horton campaign ads in the 1988 Bush-Dukakis contest - and now, the rifling of Bill Clinton's passport records.

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