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Bill's bills

Even for presidents, they always come due

Issue: "Foster or faster?," June 6, 1998

What we're watching these days as spring gives way to summer is the inevitable coming due of the bills. To be sure, you can almost always take out a second mortgage; you can sign up for one of those incredible 4.9 percent introductory offers; and yes, you can consolidate your credit card obligations. But sooner or later, the bills will start coming due. And they're always higher, and they always carry interest.

It happens even for presidents.

The three big bills coming due right now for Bill Clinton have return addresses in India, China, and the U.S. Court of Appeals.

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From India comes the bill reminding us that it's not ultimately the economy, stupid. The final test for the world's most powerful officeholder is still his ability to conduct foreign policy. It doesn't take a Rhodes Scholar to figure out what might be happening in the world's megacapitals like New Delhi. For better or for worse, they have about as much confidence in the word of the White House as the American press corps does. Nonproliferation treaties are worth just a little less than the paper it takes to write them down, so the heads of big countries like India say quite simply: "We'll take matters into our own hands." With four times as many people within their borders as the United States has within its own, and with two historical enemies like China and Pakistan smack on the other side of those borders, can India be blamed for wanting to have some firepower to defend itself?

Whether a specific link is ever established between Mr. Clinton's hanky-panky with China and India's subsequent determination to join the nuclear family is perhaps not ultimately important. The serious part is that it never seemed to dawn on Mr. Clinton and his foreign policy folks that a "minor" country like India might have great concerns about stepped-up technological help from the United States to China. It was as if he had never played a game more complex than presidential politics. And Mr. Clinton's condescending words to India couldn't have helped. "India should recognize it can be a great country without doing things like this," he said, patronizingly patting a billion people on their heads.

In any case: It's on the watch of the Clinton presidency that the nuclear ante has been upped so dramatically. The bills-including a few from countries with motives much nastier than India's-will be very high. Some of them are already in the mail.

From China comes a bill with the high cost first of a terribly compromised U.S. political system, and then second of our country's military security. It's not the first time, of course, that we've seen presidential politics sullied with tainted money. The new element is that the source of the taint is not just a foreign power, which would be bad enough; instead-according to The New York Times-officers in the military branch of the biggest Communist regime on the face of the earth were the source of gifts to the 1996 Clinton campaign.

All this moves the debate far past the issue of corrupted politics and perilously close to the issue of treason. Now we're no longer talking just about protection of a political system, which is precious enough; now the issue is protection of the country itself.

As with the sex scandals that will not let go of the Clinton presidency, the facts of the China case are only part of the question. Before getting to the facts, the American people have a right to ask why even the appearance of wrongdoing by the commander-in-chief is treated so cavalierly. How could a $100,000 gift from a lieutenant colonel in the Red Army even get close to the Clinton campaign? How could that officer manage to get her picture taken with Mr. Clinton as if they were good friends? How could an American company whose top executive gave big gifts to the Democratic Party get a waiver to sell secret technology to China even after Mr. Clinton's own staff warned against it? All apart from the facts, the appearances stink. The very high cost is the confidence of the American people in the man chiefly charged to protect them against foreign powers-and those bills are also now cluttering the mailbox.

Bill's other troubling bill last week was the one from the U.S. Court of Appeals saying that no, Secret Service agents would not be permitted to dodge questioning about the president's personal behavior. Mr. Clinton had managed to get the Secret Service to argue that they couldn't do their job effectively if they knew they might have to talk sometime later about the things they see. Curiously, he also managed to get former president George Bush to join in the argument. Yet somehow slipping through the cracks in that debate was the basic idea that a president doing only those things he ought to be doing wouldn't have to worry about what might be said.


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