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The Clinton attack machine

Kenneth Starr has only himself to blame for his new position as the No. 1 target of the Clinton attack machine.

While some of us who felt the full wrath of White House power years ago for trying to expose scandals bigger and wider than Tailgate, Independent Counsel Starr was busy preparing his resume for an assignment at Pepperdine and collecting $1 million a year in fees from his well-connected establishment law firm.

The only reason Starr now finds himself in the hotseat is because evidence of abuse of power and moral turpitude in the Oval Office literally fell into his lap. Precisely because he has been so woefully ineffective as a prosecutor during his first four years, he provides the perfect scapegoat – the perfect foil – for the professional attack dogs of the Clinton administration.

But it’s still instructive to watch these pros at work. The Washington Post reported over the weekend that Clinton’s increasingly desperate legal team has joined the political advisers in urging the all-out campaign branding Starr as part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” a political partisan out to get the president and, of course, a prosecutor whose office leaks like a sieve.

The operation got into full gear after the revelations last week about Betty Currie’s testimony to the Starr investigation. Clinton’s personal secretary, it appears, has knowingly contradicted the president in some key areas regarding his relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

The scariest quote in the Post story came from an unnamed friend of the president who acknowledged that the attacks on Starr “represent a knowing diversion by the White House.”

“When you have problems domestically,” this friend said, “you start a foreign war.”

In the context of the article, the “foreign war” reference seems to be about the attacks on Starr. But, with the Clinton administration threatening to attack Iraq within weeks, it is certainly a double-entrendre to remember.

George Stephanopoulos, Clinton’s former trusted adviser, made an interesting observation about the latest offensive by the White House. He said the new strategy is not really designed to defuse Starr at all, but, rather, to fight this battle in the ultimate courtroom of accountability for any president – in the Congress. Stephanopoulos implied that the White House would resort to blackmail to diminish interest in a move toward impeachment. He said if Congress wants to investigate the skeletons in Clinton’s closet, members had better be prepared for a counteroffensive focused on their own closets.

“There’s a different, long-term strategy, which I think would be far more explosive,” he said. “White House allies are already starting to whisper about what I’ll call the Ellen Romisch strategy. … She was a girlfriend of John F. Kennedy, who also happened to be an East German spy. And Robert Kennedy was charged with getting her out of the country and also getting John Edgar Hoover to go to the Congress and say, ‘Don’t you investigate this, because, if you do, we’re going to open up everybody’s closet.”

Stephanopoulos added that the president was ready and “willing to take everybody down with him.”

“What you’re really suggesting is a kind of mutually assured destruction,” said George Will in response to Stephanopoulos’ candid observation. Stephanopoulos agreed. Funny, I had used that exact terminology in my column more than a week earlier.

Stephanopoulos’ candor is not the only example we’re seeing from former White House staffers, by the way. Commenting on reports that Lewinsky had visited the Oval Office frequently after her internship was over, former press secretary Dee Dee Myers surprised a few viewers of a CNBC talking heads show.

“There’s no way to convince the American public that 37 visits to the White House by a former intern is routine,” she said. “That’s extraordinary. It’s out of the ordinary. I haven’t visited the White House 37 times since I left. George Stephanopoulos hasn’t visited the White House 37 times since he left a year ago.”

George and Dee Dee had better be careful. They, too, might find themselves targets of the Clinton attack machine.

It’s amazing, really, how effective the Clinton strategy has been thus far. There is absolutely no validity to the White House claims that the leaks spurring press interest in this scandal are coming from Starr’s office.

Think of how many witnesses have appeared before the independent counsel thus far. They are all as free to talk to the press as Clinton himself is – though he prefers to pretend that he is bound by some imaginary gag order.

It is also entirely plausible that some of the leaks are coming from the White House. The attack machine learned long ago in defusing scandals such as Travelgate, Filegate, Whitewater and Fostergate that information is less explosive when it dribbles out. Think of how powerful a report to Congress on Tailgate might have been if none of the leaks had yet occurred. All you have to do to imagine such a scenario is to recall how the scandal was played by the press on the first and second days. Tom Brokaw, Tim Russert and a half-dozen other pundits were so stunned by the revelations that they were already mentioning the possibility of impeachment. It seems with each passing disclosure – no matter how serious they seem – the public and press is learning to live with the idea that the president is a sexual predator and congenital liar. What else is new?

There are a couple other interesting dimensions to the condemnation of these “leaks.” If they are, indeed, untrue, as the White House consistently maintains, then why would they assume they come from the independent counsel? It would seem a very unwise and counterproductive course for Kenneth Starr’s office to leak testimony it knew to be false. Furthermore, if the information is untrue, where’s the violation of law? And, if Starr is as irresponsible as the White House claims, why not just fire him?

That last one is easy. Just has been the case all along, Kenneth Starr is the best thing the White House has going for it.