Colliding Cultures

THEY MADE AN UNLIKELY pair -- a sandy-haired, straight-arrow FBI veteran and a brash young conservative journalist. But Gary Aldrich and David Brock had two things in common: both disdained Bill Clinton and his entourage, and both were writing books to expose the follies of the Clintonites in power. In a series of lunches last summer, the two authors swapped stories -- and last week, Aldrich published a book, ""Unlimited Access: an FBI Agent Inside the Clinton White House,'' that set off an election-year furor. Among the salacious tidbits supposedly collected during his stint at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Aldrich wrote that Clinton ""is a frequent late-night visitor to the Marriott Hotel in downtown Washington,'' where ""some information indicates'' he meets a woman who ""may be a celebrity.''

There was just one problem with this allegation -- it was a wholly uncorroborated rumor whose sole source was apparently David Brock. Despite its shaky reporting -- and vehement objections from the White House -- the book catapulted Aldrich onto network television and provided new grist for Clinton-bashing tabloids and talk radio. ""Trash for right-wing cash,'' growled White House press spokesman Mike McCurry. Aldrich writes that he was told the Marriott story by ""a well-trained, experienced investigator''; in an interview, Aldrich conceded that the source was actually a journalist. And Brock told NEWSWEEK that he is confident he's the journalist in question. Though a conservative ideologue, Brock was mortified. ""I never knew I would be used as the source,'' he said. Brock heard the Marriott tale from a ""friend'' who got it from ""somebody who worked on the Hill'' who claimed to know somebody at the hotel. But it was, Brock says, ""wild speculation'' and he felt ""blindsided'' to find himself the only source when the story broke last week. Aldrich seemed surprised. ""Well, why can't you be a "source'?'' Aldrich asked him. ""[Is it] just because you're a journalist?'' Confronted with Brock's claims that the story wasn't verified, Aldrich backtracked, telling NEWSWEEK that ""these are only allegations that need to be further investigated.''

The episode bespeaks the relentless appetite for gossip about Bill Clinton. But its deeper meaning has much to do with the cultural clash between a tough Fed like Gary Aldrich, who began his FBI career as J. Edgar Hoover's mail clerk, and the hip young liberals around Clinton. Details aside, Aldrich's book is essentially an outpouring of shock and dismay at the Clintonites' manners and morals. Aldrich was assigned to White House duty in 1990, and he was clearly at home in the buttoned-up atmosphere of the Bush administration. But in 1993, he writes, the White House was invaded by cheeky, sloppy, profane and irreverent thirtysomethings whose behavior appalled him. There were ""jeans, T-shirts and sweatshirts, men with earrings and ponytails'' and ""one young lady dressed entirely in black -- black pants, black T-shirt, black shoes, even black lipstick.'' Worse, he writes, another female staffer who wore ""a very short skirt . . . kept ostentatiously crossing and uncrossing her legs.'' It was all too much, obviously, for a family-oriented suburban dad who, despite his workday exposure to the inner realities of national politics, spent his weekends coaching soccer and playing Cub Scout den leader for his three kids.

This collision of universes would be merely comic if it did not involve, and in some ways create, two overlapping scandals that now confront the White House -- Travelgate and Filegate. The White House travel-office flap, which dates back to '93, indicates an us-against-them Clintonian mentality and still has the potential to damage Hillary Clinton if it can be shown, as some allege, that the firing of seven career employees was carried out at her direction. (She has denied the charge to federal investigators.) Filegate is the developing controversy over why various Clinton aides called for and got some 700 separate FBI background files on past White House staffers, including GOP satraps like former secretary of state James Baker. Although Clinton's people have repeatedly tried to depict this as innocent bureaucratic bungling, it is a potentially serious abuse of power, suggesting a patent disregard for the rights of the individuals whose files were examined. FBI Director Louis Freeh has conceded there were ""egregious violations of privacy,'' and Whitewater Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr is on the case.

The former director of the White House Office of Personnel Security, Craig Livingstone, has become the face of the scandal. Livingstone, 37, is a political operative and sometime bar bouncer who got his impressive-sounding title as a reward for service during past Democratic campaigns and the Clinton Inaugural. He has a reputation for talking tough and an admitted history of using drugs and has had several minor brushes with the law. He was placed on leave when the Filegate scandal broke and last week -- on the same day he appeared as witness and whipping boy before a House committee -- resigned his White House post. Livingstone conceded error in the Filegate caper but insisted that nobody was trying to construct an ""enemies list.'' Instead, he said, he and an assistant named Anthony Marceca were embarked on the tedious chore of updating the security files of White House em- ployees. For reasons that remain unclear, they used a list that included hundreds of ex-staffers, many of them prominent Republicans such as former national-security adviser Brent Scowcroft and a Newt Gingrich spokesman, Tony Blankley.

Livingstone and Marceca were careless -- or worse. Aldrich, who did deal directly with Livingstone in matters involving the FBI, says many members of Clinton's staff were given access to the White House for more than a year before their background checks were complete, and he regards that as a ""breakdown'' of security. He estimates that about 10 percent of the Bush White House had smoked marijuana in the past. But illegal drug use among the Clintonites, he alleges, had been ""much higher'' and included substances like cocaine, heroin or methamphetamines. ""I'd come to the White House to get away from crooks and drug dealers, and now I was surrounded by a White House staff full of people who had been major drug buyers,'' Aldrich claims. ""Many were actually "in your face' about it, using the FBI interview to try to debate me on the merits of making drugs legal.''

But the critical allegation is that the FBI was used for what were essentially political purposes. Aldrich says the bureau was ordered to conduct special background checks on staffers who were suspected of disloyalty. A case in point is the travel office, where White House aides allegedly pressed another FBI agent for information about travel director Billy Dale and his employees before they were fired. When questions arose early on about Livingstone's suitability for so sensitive a job, Aldrich says, former associate White House counsel William Kennedy replied, ""It's a done deal. Hillary wants him.'' Kennedy has denied that remark under oath, and Clinton has denied it as well. Given Livingstone's notoriety, no one now at the White House will admit to having hired him.

In a development that did nothing to improve the White House's image, Livingstone's assistant Anthony Marceca took the Fifth Amendment last week to avoid testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The reason was probably that Marceca has already admitted using information from his own FBI background file to sue two female acquaintances for defamation. By his own account, Marceca took a peek at his file in Livingstone's White House office while Livingstone was on the phone. Nobody gets to see an uncensored version of his own FBI file -- the precaution is meant to protect the bureau's ability to gather unfavorable information -- and the fact that Marceca saw his suggests a sloppiness bordering on abuse of power. Meanwhile, the FBI has told Congress that in at least two cases, the Livingstone ""personnel security'' operation obtained confidential tax information from the Internal Revenue Service. ""When it looks like the momentum might be swinging our way,'' a senior Clinton official grumbled, ""something like this happens to kick the story up a few notches.''

The irony is that Aldrich's book resembles nothing so much as an FBI background file: it is full of unverified rumors and allegations which, because they bear the imprimatur of the bureau, are given credibility beyond their worth. It is Starr who will decide whether the charges Aldrich makes are serious, not the talk-show hosts who are exploiting his sensationalist book. The voters, meanwhile, must bear in mind that this is an election year and the gotcha season -- and that the dyspeptic view of an angry, retired FBI agent in the end is only one man's opinion.

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