One of the most distressing features of our current political system and the Clinton White House in particular, is the way they turn otherwise honest, caring, idealistic individuals into spinning, rationalizing, truth-twisting defendants desperately trying to stay out of jail. Last week, we saw the results of this transformation in Hillary Clinton's former Chief of Staff Maggie Williams and in Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, whose testimony to Congress is now under investigation by the Justice Department.
Maggie Williams' case is particularly poignant. Last week, she testified at the House Government Oversight Committee hearings about her relationship with serial donor Johnny Chung. After spending the afternoon mesmerized by her contortionist testimony, I watched an actress in Anna Deavere Smith's new play "House Arrest" portray Williams and express her hopes that she would really make a difference in the lives of children and those in need. And I have no doubt that is what Williams originally believed her tenure at the White House would be about. Instead, it turned out to be about lie detector tests, racking up over $300,000 in legal bills, and spinning -- the committee, the press and perhaps even herself.
You can see at once the toll this has taken on her. I remember meeting Williams at the start of the first Clinton term and being impressed by her presence, her passion and her sense of humor. And here she is now, having chosen to leave the White House to live in Paris, looking tired, heavy -- defeated.
Ever since her days as a student at a parochial school in Kansas City, loyalty has been a Williams trademark. The French nuns at her school divided the class into groups with their own distinct dress colors. "We all learned to develop this incredible loyalty to our color," Williams once explained. This loyalty was transferred to her bosses. The Washington Post described her working motto as "let them set the mission, let me get it done." But at some moment during Clinton's first term, the mission shifted from saving the country to saving the first couple.
For an idealist like Maggie Williams, maybe the first lady was the embodiment of the mission, the only means at hand through which the ends she believed in could be achieved. But one thing led to another. And allegations that she removed Vince Foster's files were followed by allegations that she sold access to Johnny Chung -- until this past week, she found herself trying to jerry-fit her fund-raising involvement into the nobility of her once-worthy hopes. Back in 1993, Williams said: "Everybody hates the big injustices. ... But I hate even the little injustices, even the way a sales clerk treats somebody who is shabbily dressed and happens to go into a nice store."
What made last week's testimony sad and laughable at the same time is her pretense that that same hatred of injustice toward the little guy explains her relentlessly solicitous behavior toward Chung. "As an African American," she told the committee, "I know what it means to be different in politics in America and be on the outside of things and struggle mightily for insider status and recognition, and so I perhaps had an especially high tolerance for Mr. Chung."
Williams wants us to believe that she helped Chung get what he asked for in his typed wish list because he was "not given overall the kind of respect" extended in the White House to white males. "We are going to treat him as well as we would treat any other irritable jerk who would show up," Williams explained in her deposition last May. Tired of seeing white, rich, irritable jerks being the only ones allowed to subvert the democratic process, Williams had a dream that, one day, all rich, irritable jerks would be equally allowed to subvert the democratic process.
So as part of her outreach to overlooked minorities, she gave Chung, among other things, signed photographs with the first lady, the privilege to eat on her tab at the White House Mess as often as he wanted, and access to the president's radio address for him and his "little guy" friends -- the head of China's petrochemical monopoly among them. Perhaps next time, Williams should launch a broader outreach to include minorities who have not given $366,000 to the Democratic National Committee. Or maybe she should just join a Big Sister program.
Chung ended up visiting the White House 51 times, many of these visits taking place after the National Security Council had described him as a "hustler" who should be treated with "suspicion." But to hear Maggie Williams tell it, Johnny Chung was a poor, innocent waif, a sort of diamond in the rough, an Eliza Doolittle grossly in need of expert counseling in the finer points of fund-raising etiquette from Mrs. Clinton's staff -- who, after all, are responsible for the social niceties at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. "A prime example of his ... misguided behavior," Williams testified, "was his persistent request to give money directly to Mrs. Clinton. On more than one occasion, I told Mr. Chung this was not possible, although his offer was much appreciated."
At the same time, Williams' aide, Evan Ryan, was telling Chung -- according to both Chung and Ryan -- that the DNC owed the White House $80,000 for a Christmas party and that any contribution would help pay off the debt. So it's no wonder that despite his charming cluelessness about fund-raising protocol, Chung was pretty clued in to how the White House worked: "The White House is like a subway -- you have to put in coins to open the gates."
Maggie Williams' story is a "Pilgrim's Progress" in reverse. She started out trying to do good and has ended up in the City of Destruction, trying to spin her way out of the rogues' gallery.
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