Commentary

A Presidential Wannabe’s Selective Amnesia

This article originally appeared on National Review Online on September 16, 2002.

Former Vice President Al Gore is apparently on the hunt for votes for his prospective presidential campaign. He criticized the Bush administration on just about every ground at a dinner hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus Saturday night. But his greatest moment of unintended hilarity came when he charged that Attorney General John Ashcroft “is not respectful of civil liberties.”

That’s actually true. And Gore was right when he argued: “I believe one of the test of our nation is whether in times of grave challenge, we have the courage to be true to our deepest principles.”

But while these are legitimate sentiments-whether you agree with them or not — it’s a bit curious to see them come from someone in the Clinton-Gore administration. After all, William Jefferson & Company perfected the practice of jackboot liberalism.

Start with Attorney General Janet Reno, apparently defeated in her quest for the Democratic nomination for governor of Florida. On her watch the federal government burned the children in order to save them in its assault on the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas.

The same Justice Department supported Draconian restrictions on abortion protesters, including prohibiting the display of any “images” that were “observable” from abortion clinics. In the same vein, the Defense Department attempted to gag military chaplains, preventing them from discussing the Catholic Church’s Life Postcard Campaign regarding the President’s veto of legislation banning partial-birth abortion. Clinton, Gore & friends politicized the FBI, using it to justify the White House Travel Office purge. Presidential aides snooped through FBI files on potential administration opponents.

The IRS audited a suspiciously large number of conservative foundations and groups. Proof that this reflected a conscious campaign was scarce, but no liberal groups reported undergoing similar reviews. The White House pressured the Treasury Department over the latter’s probe of Madison Guaranty, which financed the Clintons’ dubious Whitewater investment.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development used intimidated opponents of federally subsidized housing projects. HUD launched dozens of investigations against local activists and groups; subpoenaed copies of organization membership lists and financial information, people’s diaries, and other records; demanded cessation of public criticism; and threatened protestors with prosecution for speaking out.

Similarly, in 1995 the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued subpoenas to two leaders of anti-immigration groups. The commission, whose chairman and staff director were appointed by the Clinton-Gore administration, wanted computer printouts, internal documents, reports, and other information from the organizations which were, of course, engaged in First Amendment political activities. The commission retreated, but only under congressional pressure.

Intimidation has been an administration hallmark. In 1994 President Clinton expressed outrage that radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh could get on the air and “have three hours to say whatever he wants. And I won’t have an opportunity to respond.” White House Communications Director Mark Gearan called for radio talk shows to put on opposition — meaning administration — guests. Senior adviser George Stephanopoulos suggested resurrecting the misnamed “Fairness Doctrine,” to be enforced by Clinton-Gore appointees on the Federal Communications Commission, to regulate political broadcasts.

Then there was the Department of Energy’s press-rating system. Reporters were judged on their coverage; sources were rank-ordered based on their opinion of the department. Department press secretary Barbara Semedo explained that a low rating “meant we weren’t getting our message across, that we needed to work on this person a little.” But, of course, getting the message meant spouting the department’s line.

The Food and Drug Administration’s grab for control over the tobacco industry was amazing: The FDA sought to prohibit even the use of brand names on non-tobacco products (such as lighters and t-shirts) and the use of non-tobacco brand names on tobacco products. (Alas, state attorneys general and the trial bar later achieved the same end through extortionate litigation.) The administration supported labeling restrictions on the alcohol industry, unsuccessfully urging the Supreme Court to void the firms’ First Amendment rights. The Clinton-Gore administration also backed FCC Chairman Reed Hundt’s abortive campaign to bar the advertising of distilled spirits on television. The same administration supported the Communications Decency Act, which would have attempted to ban the transmission of “indecent” materials over the Internet. Though well intentioned, the law, voided by the Supreme Court, inevitably meant heavy-handed federal censorship of the most free communication medium today.

Although President Clinton spoke of reforming affirmative action, his administration promoted it instead. Perhaps the ugliest episode was his Justice Department’s support for the Piscataway, New Jersey school district that fired a teacher because she was white. Justice eventually flip- flopped in the case, but left its support for the government’s vast system of racial spoils otherwise undisturbed. The Education Department responded to California’s passage of Proposition 209 by threatening to prosecute the university system.

Within the Clinton-Gore administration “diversity” became a code word for preferential treatment of politically advantaged groups. HUD required that employees not only implement federal diversity policy, but demonstrate “interest” and “personal commitment” to diversity, be active in “minority, feminist or other cultural organizations,” and participate in “cultural diversity activities outside of HUD.” The Department of Agriculture reassigned an employee for criticizing, on his own time, the department’s policy of offering spousal benefits to same-sex partners.

There were also haphazard bureaucratic witch-hunts. The State Department fired Timothy Hunter, a retired Army counterintelligence officer who served in a number of government agencies before joining the State Department in 1990, for raising questions about agency administrative practices, discriminatory hiring and firing policies, make-work foreign-service jobs, and the State Department’s failure to defend the religious freedom of Americans working in Saudi Arabia.

But the harshest examples of jackboot liberalism have come from the Justice Department and federal law enforcement agencies. The Branch Davidian case continues to stand as an example of government run amok, persecuting people who wanted little more than to be left alone. Yet the Clinton-Gore administration steadfastly resisted attempts to hold anyone accountable in either Waco or Ruby Ridge, Idaho, where federal agents earlier killed the wife, son, and dog of loner Randy Weaver in order to arrest him in a case verging on entrapment.

The administration did, however, use the Oklahoma City bombing as an excuse to propose sweeping new federal powers — such as restricting the right of habeas corpus and expanding use of wiretaps — even though proponents were unable to point to a single example where civil-liberties protections prevented the police from deterring terrorism. Several of its proposals were turned into law.

Clinton, Gore & Company, who constituted the most wiretap-friendly administration in U.S. history, essentially sought to eliminate the requirement of a warrant for searches from the Fourth Amendment. The president claimed to possess “inherent authority to conduct warrant-less searches for foreign intelligence purposes.” The administration required public-housing residents to sign away their constitutional right that authorities procure a warrant to search their dwellings and personal property. The Justice Department backed warrant-less (indeed, suspicion-less) drug tests for high-school athletes. The administration requested greater FBI authority to conduct “roving wiretaps,” without a court order. In the same way, Clinton-Gore officials pushed the Communications Assistance Act, which required telephone companies to retrofit their systems to ease police surveillance, supported restrictions on the sale of Internet encryption technology, and requested legislation forcing firms to give the government the “keys” to such technology.

The administration was tougher than its predecessor on drugs. Marijuana arrests were up 50 percent over Bush-41 years and the Clinton-Gore administration consistently sought to frustrate state voters who approved measures to allow the desperately ill — victims of AIDS and cancer, in particular — from using marijuana to ease their nausea and pain. Administration appointees even threatened to prosecute any physician who provided a prescription for medical use of marijuana as allowed by state law. When asked about the criticism that sellers of crack were being punished far more severely than those who peddled cocaine, the president responded that penalties for the latter — which already ensured that minor drug dealers spend more time in jail than do many armed robbers, rapists, and murderers — should be raised. (As was his wont for shifting with the political winds, he later proposed moving modestly in the other direction, cutting the disparity from 100 to ten-to-one.) No more squishy, compassionate liberalism. The Clinton-Gore administration was enthusiastic about throwing people in prison.

The administration also jailed people for resisting federal designation of their (very dry) property as “wetlands,” and committing other environmental offenses. In 1994 the Justice Department relaxed its control of environmental prosecutions in order to allow individual U.S. attorneys great latitude in prosecuting business. But the Justice Department retained the right to proceed if a local U.S. attorney refused to bring charges.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt attacked energy companies for criticizing administration scare mongering about global warming. He charged the firms with attempting “to distort the facts and to mislead,” adding: “I think that the energy companies need to be called to account, because what they are doing is un-American in the most basic sense.” He left unsaid how he would call “un-American” businesses “to account,” but climate scientists have long reported that the administration uses its control of research funding to reward researchers who tow the party line and punish those who express skepticism of climatic Chicken Littles.

And the Clinton-Gore administration advanced additional thuggish policies and proposals — curfews for kids, random drug tests for welfare recipients and kids seeking drivers licenses, attacks on the requirement of a jury trial, ex post facto tax hikes, attempts to gain court sanction for uncompensated property takings, prosecutions implicating the double-jeopardy clause, pretentious claims of federal criminal jurisdiction, infringements of the Second Amendment right to possess a firearm, et al.

Tim Lynch, assistant director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies, covered these and more in his devastating study, Dereliction of Duty: The Constitutional Record of President Clinton. He observed that “Although President Clinton has expressed support for an ‘expansive’ view of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, he has actually weakened a number of fundamental guarantees.”

Perhaps any particular decision could be defended on one ground or another, but Wired magazine’s John Heilemann accurately called the Clinton-Gore civil-liberties record “breathtaking in both the breadth and the depth of its awfulness.”

Former Vice President Al Gore says he is worried about our civil liberties. How quaint. Too bad he didn’t evidence a similar concern when the administration of which he was a key member was routinely putting power before liberty. There’s no reason to believe that a Gore administration would be any different than a Clinton-Gore administration: We all would almost certainly be paying for more jackboot liberalism with our freedoms.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Inst itute. He served as a special assistant to President Reagan.