Another Odd Couple

YEARS AGO AT THE OFFICE WHERE I WORKED WE HAD A security guard who sat in the lobby venting his cultural disgust, keeping a fitful lookout on closed-circuit TV for those whose indisputably anarchic, if not downright scuzzy, attire provoked his suspicion, and, incidentally, letting real thief after thief walk out with office equipment. Wear a proper suit, smile cordially and you probably could have got past him bearing the boss's television, if not the boss himself, even as our guard greeted you respectfully, before sinking back into his unending ""O tempora, O mores'' despair.

This guy was no Eliot Ness. He wasn't even Leslie Nielsen. He was strictly Mr. Magoo. I had not thought of him at all for years until I read the book of FBI Special Agent Gary Aldrich. I don't know what book by Aldrich practically everyone else has been reading with all their earnest journalistic wondering about the authenticity of this story and that. Because of the sloppy, undisciplined way it's written the whole thing is suspect to me, even some of the scandalous parts I might well believe if they weren't being presented in this incorrigibly flawed way.

More important, after reading Aldrich's book I also don't know what supposed high conflict between him (representing the forces of security and law and order) and the White House basement bunch (representing the forces of security chaos at best and malevolent misuse of the documents at worst) others are talking about. That is not because the basement bunch are right and the federal agents in charge of security are wrong. On the contrary, it is because they are of a piece, a perfect match. They mirror and deserve each other. They trade confidences and complaints about the security derelictions of others, according to Aldrich. Craig Livingstone grieves to Aldrich about William Kennedy's shortcomings, shares rumors of squalid sexual doings in high places and so forth. Aldrich takes him seriously. On my reading of the book, anyway, Gary Aldrich was to the kind of FBI personnel you would hope for what Craig Livingstone and Anthony Marceca were to the kind of White House security operation you would hope for, and everybody should be ashamed and chagrined -- not just the White House but also the FBI. It wasn't security. It was grade-B operetta.

Let me clearly acknowledge a couple of facts. I have next to no confidence in the White House spin on what Livingstone and Marceca were doing there with all their files, no confidence in the blurry trail of responsibility (or lack of it) for their presence and their actions that the White House has sought to establish, and I do believe that White House security -- the real thing, the serious thing -- is a top priority that should be established and enforced by FBI and Secret Service personnel. I agree with the stated premise in Aldrich's complaint (much more cogently made by others over the years) that this White House has been, administratively, managerially and in terms of the quality of dozens upon dozens of its jobholders, a disaster area that even the ministrations of topnotch people like Leon Panetta and Laura D'Andrea Tyson and many others cannot fully get hold of. I even go so far as to stipulate that the self-absorbed Special Agent Aldrich over the years must have done some estimable work to end up where he finally did.

But that's the end of it. No more Mrs. Nice Guy, where Special Agent Aldrich is concerned. The author of this book has no feel for evidence. Not since the historic war between two of my great-aunts over their comparative seating at a cousin's wedding years ago have I seen so much slight-interpreting and misplaced heavy fire, so much suspicion because someone (David Watkins) greeted him too warmly or was too nice or didn't wear the proper clothes or something. This is how our agent reaches some of his darkest suspicions. Others merely proceed from a range of prejudices that truly shriek out from the page. As one who had and has many arguments with former White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum, for instance, I cannot say that his ""heavy New York accent'' or the fact that compared with ""the tall, the polite'' Vincent Foster he was ""short, pushy, and imperious'' seems relevant, except to Aldrich's obvious unstated problem with him.

Besides this kind of unreliability there are two more items. One is the grandiosity: Gary Aldrich is not slow to tell you and others of his accomplishments in the name of protecting the national security. He talks of danger and sacrifice and commitment as a law enforcer and the rest. But the other is that it's not so much as a law enforcer but as a jobholder that he almost invariably defines these perils. For most of the time when he talks about the risks he takes and the danger he faces in this job, they are risks and dangers to his own bureaucratic standing. Again and again we hear this: ""My success is dependent on making the least number of enemies as possible ... They'd find a way to sink me...'' ""(I)f FBI headquarters or anyone else saw a list written by me telling them they could do things better, that would be curtains for me.'' ""There was also an element of self-preservation in my reticence. If I had identified any one individual as being a security risk, as I understood the concept, and if that person turned out to be a good friend of the president, I would be a goner.'' Mr. Aldrich is self-protective, circuitous, above all bureaucratically engaged, even to the point of trying to patch things over with ""a simple "Coke and peanuts' get-together ... Counsel's office could provide a speaker to tell the FBI personnel how much their work was appreciated and so forth.''

Now, wait a minute. Is this stuff serious or isn't it? If it is, why do we have Clinton's own Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck (only without the element of cuteness) searching other people's most private FBI files in the White House basement, and the FBI's gang that couldn't even shoot off its mouth straight in lukewarm, resentful, unavailing pursuit of them for three years? Why does Mr. Aldrich choose to be a whistle-blower with a defect-laden, after-the-fact book, rather than having risked something and gone big time to his ultimate bosses when it might have mattered? Is anyone home in the whole area of deadly-serious White House personnel security? On the basis of what's been put out, the answer, God help us, seems to be, no.