Topic: Government & Politics

Clinton Ethics in Kerryville
(9/24/2004)

Maybe The Ethics Scoreboard was the only place where suspicions lurked that once veteran Clinton strategists saddled up for the increasingly desperate Kerry campaign, its ethical standards would migrate south in a hurry.

Maybe, but we doubt it.

And you have to admit, it didn't take long. The latest development in the saga of the forged National Guard memos is that Mary Mapes, the producer of that infamous "60 Minutes" story, suggested that Joe Lockhart, one of the Clinton Cavalry reinforcements, contact Bill Burkett, the rabid anti-Bush Guardsman who provided (Created? Forged?) the fraudulent memos that now have Dan Rather on the ropes. She even provided a phone number. And Lockhart, his ethical instincts permanently paralyzed, dutifully called.

Now we know that many of you out there have an emotional attachment to Mr. Clinton (whom we wish well in his recuperation from heart bypass surgery) and are tempted to start flinging rationalizations ("Everybody does it;" "He was no worse than a lot of presidents;" "The Republicans forced him to lie;" "He did a lot of good things too;" etc.) the second anyone has the temerity to question the former President's ethics. But the unavoidable fact is that anyone who would rely, as Clinton did, on a Machiavellian and ethics-free hired gun like Dick Morris as his primary campaign strategist (Kerry can thank his Fairy Godmother that Dick didn't parachute in with Begala and Carville) is not overly concerned with the nuances of right and wrong.

Back to the 42nd President's former press secretary, Lockhart. He receives a call from a CBS producer that is aimed at brokering contact and presumably collaboration between an activist Bush critic and the Kerry campaign. Lockhart, who is not inexperienced in the field of journalism, knows this is an epic violation of ethics and fairness: the media is supposed to report political campaigns, not take sides in them. His proper response, the only proper response, would be to decline Mapes' offer, tell her that her actions are inappropriate, and explain that the Kerry campaign would in no way participate in an illicit alliance between the supposedly neutral CBS news division and his candidate.

Lockhart, based on his comments quoted in USA Today, didn't see it that way. A CBS producer gave him the phone number of the source for a story damaging to President Bush, and so he called it. Nothing came of the five minute conversation, so what's the big deal? Well, Joe, what if you work for the Washington Redskins and a disgruntled former Dallas Cowboys employee offers you the Dallas playbook? Does the ethics of your accepting the playbook depend on whether it turns out to be useful in preparing for the upcoming game? Of course not; the ethical response is to refuse the book. Let's say you are an exec at Apple Computers, and an anti-Microsoft fanatic gives you the phone number of an angry Microsoft designer who may be ready to violate his contract obligations and give (or sell) secrets to the competition. Does calling the designer only become unethical if you actually get useful information from him? Again, no. By taking the number and making the call, you are continuing and participating in an unethical act. This is exactly what Lockhart did. Kerry's campaign is going to take the heat for it, and that is the price you pay for willingly exposing yourself to the Clinton White House ethics virus.

We shall waste little time considering the journalistic ethics of Mary Mapes: they are wretched. She apparently agreed to serve as a go-between in the hoped-for alliance between Burkett and the Kerry campaign in exchange for access to the forged memos…now there's a shrewd deal! It makes one wonder what CBS staff won't do to get a story. "Yes, I'll give you these smoking gun documents, but you have to promise that Bob Schieffer will ask the following question of President Bush during the debate." So let's not have any caterwauling about the Bush campaign demanding that no CBS reporter serve as a debate moderator, shall we? There is now incontrovertible evidence that the network will play favorites for a price. Exit CBS, and good riddance.

The next act in this sordid melodrama will be attempts by CBS and the Kerry campaign to distance themselves from the unethical acts of their representatives. Sorry, no dice. An organization is absolutely responsible for setting the ethical standards of its employees, even experienced employees, especially when they come from the valley of Lincoln bedroom auctions, Johnny Chung and "We were never alone." It's time for the Kerry organization and the House that Paley Built to hold refresher courses in Ethics 101.

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