Washington's Favorite Game: Political Payback

Posted: May 18, 2001 12:00 AM
According to the Shinto religion, the world rests on the back of a turtle. If you ask a Shinto true-believer "Well, what's the turtle standing on?" He'll say, "another turtle." If you ask him, "Well, what's (ital) that (end ital) turtle standing on?" He'll answer, "He's on a turtle, too." And if you ask him, "Well, what's that turtle standing on?" He'll probably smack you with a rolled-up tatami mat and say, "Look, buddy, it's turtles all the way down." Well, you can play a similar game in Washington when it comes to payback. Almost every political fuss can trace its lineage back to George Washington forgetting to invite John Adams to a poker game, or something like that. Take the current fight over President Bush's choice to be solicitor general, Ted Olson. On the surface, the fight is about whether Olson told the Senate Judiciary Committee the whole truth when he said that he had no involvement in something called the Arkansas Project administered by the American Spectator, an ornery conservative magazine. The Arkansas Project was, depending on whom you ask, either a tough-minded journalistic effort to get to the bottom of Bill Clinton's shady dealings in Arkansas or the kind of nefarious conspiracy to topple a world leader that James Bond usually foils. Olson says he told the truth when he recently assured the Senate Judiciary Committee he wasn't involved with the Arkansas Project. Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee don't believe him and want to investigate whether Olson shaved the truth in his testimony. But nobody - and I really mean nobody - in Washington thinks that's what's really going on. First, some background. Olson is a hugely respected and accomplished lawyer who has argued before the Supreme Court some 15 times. In fact, he was the Bush team's lawyer in the Supreme Court case of Bush vs. Gore, which settled fall's Florida electoral brouhaha. Since we aren't all waiting in Soviet-style lines to buy electric cars in compliance with the latest directive from the Gore administration, you might be able to figure out that Olson won the argument. But Olson's history of delivering bitter disappointments to liberals and Democrats is far richer. Olson was an adviser to the lawyers for Paula Jones, the woman who wouldn't well, you know, with then-Governor Clinton. Olson has long ties to the Federalist Society, a group of generally geeky conservative lawyers, as well as other conservative legal groups. And his wife, Barbara Olson, wrote a best seller that treated Mrs. Clinton like a piñata. She also played a significant role in some of the congressional investigations that gave Bill Clinton migraines and forced him to find solace in the "arms" of an intern. So, it comes as no surprise to read in The New York Times, "To some Democrats, the effort to impede Mr. Olson's nomination carries with it the exquisite pleasure of payback to Mr. Olson and his wife who were major figures in the campaign of relentless criticism of the Clintons waged by an assortment of opponents." Indeed, a Nexis search reveals that almost every major news story about Olson's confirmation battle mentions that this assault on him might be, in the words of the New York Post, "possible payback for his alleged role in digging up dirt on the Clintons." But the funny thing is that the assaults on Clinton were widely seen as "payback" for all sorts of things, such as the "unfair" defeat of George Bush in 1992, when he was beaten up over an economy that was actually doing fine. Or, many people said Clinton's troubles were attributable to the fact that he manipulated the press during the campaign and the press sought revenge once he was elected. Or you could say that Ted Olson was, in fact, a creation of the payback culture because conservatives are still smarting from the defeat of Robert Bork. In fact, the Federalist Society was essentially created so conservatives wouldn't take Borking lying down anymore. But then again, the whole reason Judge Bork got Borked has been attributed to the fact that he fired the special prosecutor during the so-called "Midnight Massacre" during Watergate. But then again, the whole reason Watergate happened in the first place, according to some, is that Richard Nixon went after Helen Douglas during the McCarthy period. After all, Nixon didn't do anything LBJ and JFK didn't do. Every "gotchya" in American politics is payback in somebody's eyes. I know that sounds cynical, but in a sense that's democracy: a huge childish fight with one side screaming, "you started it," and another side saying, "you started it." Ultimately, it's "you started its" all the way down.