National vs. personal interest

When presidents - and the public - confuse the two, trouble starts

Last Aug. 17, when President Clinton went on television after his grand jury appearance to confess a "not appropriate" relationship with Monica Lewinsky, I happened to be attending an Aspen seminar with Sen. Diane Feinstein (D) of California. She said she had been in the White House Roosevelt Room in January, when the president categorically denied any such involvement. Deeply saddened, she said, "My trust in his credibility has been shattered."

Yet, earlier this month, Senator Feinstein was at a White House state dinner, and she has been vigorous in her defense of Mr. Clinton against impeachment.

That came to mind when I read The New York Times column of my friend Bill Safire, captioned "The Loyalty Mystery." That is, the mystery of how the president manages to retain the loyalty of the public and his own aides, some of whom have not experienced much loyalty from him.

He dropped nominees, like Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood for attorney general, Lani Guinier to head the Justice Department Civil Rights Division, and former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld as ambassador to Mexico when they ran into confirmation trouble. He has fired officials, like Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders when she ran into criticism for an offhand remark about masturbation. He has not shown great loyalty to aides who got into trouble serving him, like Webster Hubbell, who talked of rolling over "one more time" for the president, and Harold Ickes, who was eased out after being passed over for White House chief of staff.

A bemused Safire writes of Clinton: "There he stands in the dock, impeached as a perjurer, certain of censure, roundly denounced even by his political allies for weaknesses that dishonored the office. Yet not one of the aides who call themselves betrayed has turned on him."

Safire speculates that it is because of a Kulturkampf, a cultural war, in which the baby boomers of the '60s stick together against the conservatives of the '90s. Conservative lobbyist Ralph Reed, on "The News Hour With Jim Lehrer," said it was because the president is associated with economic good times. Former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta thinks it is because people who don't believe in Clinton as a person still believe in what he is trying to do for America.

All plausible explanations, but I think there is something else. Many presidents have tended to regard associates, and even longtime friends, as expendable in the interest of the lofty goals the leaders believe they are pursuing. When Clinton, like President Franklin Roosevelt, like President Richard Nixon, turns his back on someone who has served him, I am sure he is convinced it is a sacrifice being made in the national interest.

It is when presidents confuse national interest with personal interest that the trouble starts.

Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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