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Clinton's enemies know no shame

If there has been a slimier political act in Washington in recent decades, I do not remember it. Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., reached depths of degradation in publishing transcripts of telephone conversations that Webster Hubbell had, from prison, with his wife, friends and lawyers.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons tapes prisoners' calls to guard against threats to security. Its regulations forbid disclosure of their contents, as does the Privacy Act.

Burton, chairman of a House committee that is investigating campaign finance, subpoenaed the Hubbell tapes. He said he needed them to pursue an inquiry into whether Hubbell had been paid hush money for silence. But he edited out exculpatory remarks by Hubbell, including a denial of the hush-money notion.

In turning the tapes over, the Justice Department said, "We understand the committee appreciates (their) sensitivity and will safeguard them accordingly." Burton ignored that, an aide explained, because "the American people had a right to know what happened." The real purpose was of course to smear Hubbell's friend, President Clinton.

Dan Burton once fired a bullet into a melon to prove that Vincent Foster did not commit suicide. He is a fanatic ready to believe, and propagate, anything that will hurt the president.

When Hillary Rodham Clinton said that her husband was the longtime target of "a vast right-wing conspiracy," she was much mocked. The word conspiracy evokes the unlikely picture of men plotting in secret meetings. But no one can doubt that there are many people and institutions on the political right dedicated to destroying Bill Clinton. Like Dan Burton, they need no instructions from a conspiracy.

Richard Mellon Scaife reportedly funneled $2.4-million through a right-wing magazine, the American Spectator, for what was called the Arkansas Project. It was a secret operation to find evil about the president _ or invent it, like the tale that he helped to fly drugs in through an airport at Mena, Ark.

Kenneth Starr's principal deputy in Little Rock, W. Hickman Ewing Jr., was the subject of a recent profile by Jeffrey Toobin in the New Yorker. His record, and his own words, portray a prosecutor who sees himself as the sword of God and who has decided, as Toobin put it, "that the president and his wife are crooks."

Kenneth Starr, the Whitewater independent counsel, is not in the fanatical category of a Burton, Scaife or Ewing. But he has gone very far in his effort to find something that he can report to the House of Representatives as a possible impeachable offense by the president.

Last week Starr had a grand jury indict Webster Hubbell on numerous charges, principally obstructing tax administration. Hubbell's wife, accountant and lawyer were also indicted.

"That's very hardball," a U.S. attorney in New York under President Bush, Otto Obermaier, said. It is unusual to bring a criminal rather than a civil case on such tax matters, and this was brought without the customary review by the Justice Department and the Internal Revenue Service. Starr hopes to pressure Hubbell into saying damaging things about President and Mrs. Clinton.

Starr is trying, for the first time in our history, to make Secret Service agents who guard the president testify about his personal life. He is taking that dangerous step in hopes of getting evidence that Clinton lied about a sexual relationship _ lied in a deposition found to be immaterial, in a civil case that has been dismissed.

Clinton has made what I regard as grave mistakes of policy, and he may have done private wrongs that are the subject of so much innuendo. But the behavior of his enemies seems to me _ and I think to much of the public _ far more dangerous.

At his press conference last week one reporter after another asked the president about his "moral authority." They might start asking about the moral authority of Dan Burton, Richard Mellon Scaife and the other haters. And they might start thinking about what will be left of our constitutional balance on Jan. 20, 2001, when Kenneth Starr will presumably stop haunting the presidency.

New York Times News Service