'Travelgate' damages a troubled Clinton: No recent president has become so unpopular so soon, thanks to blunders by a young and inexperienced team

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WATERGATE it is not - or not yet. But the tawdry affair of the White House travel office sackings, which entered its second week yesterday, has done much to undermine Bill Clinton's fragile presidency.

This month of May has been anything but merry for the young man from Hope, Arkansas, inaugurated amid such high hopes a bare 128 days ago. First came his erratic handling of the Bosnian crisis - a faltering display, as the New Yorker well put it, of 'purpose without power'. On Capitol Hill, his own Democratic party has come close to dismembering the tax and deficit-reduction package which is the sheet anchor of his domestic programme.

Presidencies are made and broken by impressions. And in the space of 24 hours last week, two episodes on the opposite coasts of America may have irretrievably transformed the image of Bill Clinton: from bright-eyed outsider committed to reform of the wicked ways of Washington to the self-indulgent insider addicted to cronyism, fatuous Hollywood glitter and easy perquisites of supreme office.

Easiest to understand, and therefore most damaging in Main Street USA, was the dollars 200 haircut on Air Force One by a Beverly Hills stylist, Christophe - a presidential whim that paralysed half of Los Angeles airport for an hour. In the cloistered, fetid world of the capital, however, where presidents must do real business, 'Travelgate' has had an even greater impact.

It began on 19 May, the day after Mr Clinton's return from California. Early that afternoon, his Press Secretary, Dee Dee Myers, informed astonished White House reporters that the entire seven-strong staff of the travel office was being dismissed for 'gross mismanagement', which the FBI was investigating. She dropped hints of pilfering and kickbacks: 'They'll be out of here by the end of today.'

Regardless of the merits of the case, this peremptory treatment of well- liked individuals who had served in the White House for up to 30 years was bound to be closely scrutinised by a press corps already smarting at the scant regard paid them by the new presidential team. But worse followed.

The travel business, it emerged, would be 'temporarily' entrusted to World Wide Travel, a big Little Rock agency that had handled travel for the Clinton campaign and contributed to its election coffers. Then, the next day, a memo came to light suggesting that the coup had been plotted two months earlier. It set out a proposed new travel organisation, headed by a distant cousin of the President.

Its publication caused a furore. Accusations of nepotism and favouritism besieged the White House. Late on 21 May, the Communications Director, George Stephanopoulos, announced that World Wide Travel had withdrawn, to be replaced 'on an interim basis' by the unimpeachably neutral American Express. But in an extraordinarily clumsy attempt to justify the original behaviour, Mr Stephanopoulos produced a statement from the FBI, confirming the possible criminal ramifications of the affair.

At that point, the Watergate analogy was valid. As seasoned observers were quick to note, the last President who tried to use law enforcement agencies for political damage control was Richard Nixon. The newly appointed Attorney General, Janet Reno, the cabinet officer responsible for the FBI, complained about the improper use made of the Bureau by the White House.

The controversy rumbled on. It transpired that Harry Thomason, a Hollywood producer and old Arkansas friend of Mr Clinton with interests in the travel agency business, had had a hand in the affair. Desperately, the White House insisted that the President had known nothing of what had happened (shades again of Richard Nixon and Watergate).

On Tuesday, a humiliating climb- down was all but complete. Not a murmur was heard of criminal conduct. Mr Stephanopoulos announced that, contrary to Ms Myers' assertions six days before, only one of the travel staff had been fired. One had 'retired', the other five were on fully paid 'administrative leave'. Meanwhile, the Chief of Staff, Thomas 'Mack' McLarty, would conduct an in-house review of the fiasco.

And there is plenty to review. 'Travelgate' was but the latest and most serious of several blunders by Mr Clinton's youthful and inexperienced aides. By reinforcing the impression of a President who could not keep his house in order, it contributed to the mutinous mood among congressional Democrats.

After his month of woes, Mr Clinton's disapproval rating in the polls outstrips his approval rating. No recent president has suffered such indignity so early in his first term. So poor is his standing that local Democrats have asked him to stay away from the Texas Senate election next month, which the party looks set to lose.

Rumours are rife of an impending staff shake-up, which could see the departure of Mr McLarty and the replacement of Mr Stephanopoulos and Ms Myers by more professional spokespeople. Hollywood luminaries such as Barbra Streisand (not to mention Mr Thomason) will surely be less in evidence. But the real test is for Mr Clinton himself. He must demonstrate qualities conspicuous by their absence since last January: discipline and toughness.