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Sandy Berger and the Real Hillary Clinton

By Ronald A. Cass

Elections are not just about platforms but character. Republicans were shocked by Harry Truman's election as President, certain that the Missouri ward politician had neither the intellect nor the expertise needed for the presidency. The public, however, wasn't looking for someone polished or intellectual. They responded to Truman's no-nonsense style, his sense of personal responsibility, and his instinctive grasp of the essence of his charge. Harry Truman didn't duck hard decisions and didn't shy from asserting the power of his office or his nation.

Likewise, Democrats were - and remain - perplexed over Ronald Reagan's popularity. They underestimated Reagan's intelligence and misunderstood key aspects of what he stood for. But most of all, they missed that he was popular as much for who he was as for what he did. Reagan radiated optimism, faith in America, and conviction that he could spread a gospel of liberty and freedom through a combination of good humor and military might. Americans trusted him and his vision, even when they might not have chosen all of his policies.

Voters still want to know if a candidate shares their views and values, if he seems like "one of us," and if he - or she - is likely to respond to a crisis in a way that gives us comfort in his or her leadership. Those are more matters of gut instinct than analysis. In today's scripted and staged political world, it's especially difficult for voters to get a fix on the character issues they care about. When a misguided comment or look can de-rail a candidacy, it's no surprise that an entire profession now exists to coif, dress, coach, and produce the candidates' appearances, as well as to tell us afterward what we saw and heard and what to make of it.

But sometimes, you can still see a glimpse of who the candidates really are.

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According to reports in Newsweek, The Washington Post, and other liberal news media not commonly associated with a "vast right wing conspiracy," Hillary Clinton has selected a team of national security advisers led by the "triumvirate" of Madeline Albright, Richard Holbrooke, and Sandy Berger. All three were prominent members of Bill Clinton's national security team when he was president. Ms. Albright was President Clinton's Secretary of State. Mr. Holbrooke was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. And Mr. Berger was President Clinton's National Security Advisor. While conservatives generally give them negative reviews, all three have substantial experience, close ties to the senator and her husband, and are exactly the sort of "old hands" who become key insiders in a campaign.

Except for one small detail. Sandy Berger isn't just a former National Security Advisor - he's also the only National Security Advisor in U.S. history to be convicted after stealing and destroying classified documents.

For those who missed the story, Berger was President Clinton's designated representative to the 9/11 Commission investigating intelligence-gathering and analysis preceding the terrorist attacks that took the lives of 3,000 innocents on American soil, by far the worst such attack in our history. As President Clinton's representative, Berger was granted access to specially classified material in the National Archives relating to the handling of information respecting the threat from al Qaeda and the Clinton Administration's response in preparation for his testimony before the 9/11 Commission. Berger willfully removed classified material, hiding documents first in his pants and then under a construction trailer, destroyed them, and lied to officials investigating the theft.

We'll never know just what information Berger destroyed. The only people who know aren't likely to talk - after all, they wanted the information destroyed. The 9/11 Commission did not know of Berger's theft and destruction of classified documents when he testified in front of them, trumpeting his former boss's handling of terrorist threats and faulting President Bush for failing to do enough to prevent the attacks.

But we do know that, whatever it was that Sandy Berger destroyed, it had to be exceptionally damning for a man of Berger's professional stature to risk disgrace, disbarment, and imprisonment in order to keep it from view. Shockingly, he was able to obtain a relatively lenient plea agreement before most of the truly damning facts about his actions came to light and, when the DC Bar began a proceeding, Berger voluntarily surrendered his license to practice law in order to close down the only remaining avenue of inquiry into what he'd done.

For a nation that will live for decades with the legacy of 9/11 and the need to be vigilant in identifying and defending against future attacks, the loss of that information could prove tragic. The missing information could have helped determine what happened in the run-up to 9/11, what went wrong, and what could be done to prevent another 9/11. Sandy Berger plainly cared less about that than he did about protecting someone from being called to task for what happened during his and President Clinton's time in the White House.

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So, what does it say that Hillary Clinton chose Mr. Berger as one of her advisers, and that she will rely on the advice of a convicted criminal who is barred from access to the sort of national security information a party's candidate for President is routinely briefed on during a campaign?

Many politicians are loyal to their friends. Many Presidents, Republican and Democrat alike, have kept in place people who turn out to be engaged in activity that no one should endorse. And many politicians maintain friendships with associates who have fallen from grace, not condoning their misdeeds, but not abandoning personal ties.

Hillary has done something entirely different. She selected a key adviser she knows has scandalously flouted the law, lied to deflect blame onto others, and subverted the democratic processes that provide accountability for officials' conduct. She selected someone who has destroyed documents that could be crucial to America's security to be a trusted councilor on national security matters - documents that could have contained hand-written notes by her husband or information that would have called his judgment into question.

Hillary has had to renounce associates before. She's had numerous fund-raising scandals involving criminal wrong-doing by people she should have known to be criminals, Norman Hsu being the most recent and notorious. But in all of those instances, she has had the plausible excuse that she didn't know what they had done wrong.

In Sandy Berger's case, there is no excuse. Hillary's inclusion of Sandy Berger in her circle of advisers demonstrates that, notwithstanding her law license, she really doesn't care about the law. She doesn't care whether someone violates the law if they're on her team, if the violation in some way helps the Clintons. Hillary's indifference to criminal wrong-doing suggests that she sees herself as above the law, breezily ignoring law when it's an impediment to something she wants.

During Bill Clinton's administration, there was no shortage of indications that perhaps the Clintons, husband and wife, were a bit casual about legal niceties. Although the accusations fixated many and resulted in convictions for more than a few Clinton associates, in the end, though he was disbarred for five years, Bill Clinton got something of a break because he was personally charming and his accusers seemed less so. Public reaction was that you might not want him around your daughter, but you'd be happy to go have a drink with Bill.

Hillary, whose stiff demeanor won't garner the same slack, doesn't just remind us of prior scandals. Sandy Berger didn't lie about sex or do something ordinary that isn't strictly in keeping with law - like speeding on a road where citizens regard the posted limits as advisory rather than mandatory. Sandy Berger committed a serious crime, intentionally, and lied about it, intentionally, and put his nation at risk. Hillary isn't bothered by any of that. Whatever she says about the rule of law - which limits official power to safeguard all of us - she evidently doesn't believe it was intended to place limits on her.

Picking Sandy Berger tells us something important about Hillary's character. We should listen now - while it can do some good.

Ronald A. Cass is Dean Emeritus of Boston University School of Law and Chairman of the Center for the Rule of Law.

Ronald A. Cass is President of Cass & Associates, Dean Emeritus of Boston University School of Law, and author of "The Rule of Law in America" (Johns Hopkins University Press).

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