Karl Marx's comment that history repeats itself the first time as tragedy, the second as farce, has a lot to recommend it. But in the third week of May in Washington that axiom was turned on its head.
Last fall, Capitol Hill was a mass of jostling TV camera crews and journalists present to record the delivery to Congress of Independent Counsel Ken Starr's long-awaited impeachment report. On May 25 -- amid similar circus scenes of popping flashbulbs, shouted questions and shoving for the best vantage point -- another weighty and much-heralded report feared by the administration landed on committee tables with a sickening thud.
If Starr's study of presidential sex, lies and audiotapes was an attorney's take on Broadway burlesque, the 872 pages of the Cox committee's report on Chinese espionage is a tragedy of errors -- a chilling one that is likely to mark a major shift in the course of U.S.-Sino relations and potentially could provide the springboard for Republican presidential and congressional wins in the 2000 elections, if adeptly handled by GOP strategists.
There are shared themes in the reports -- both narrate stories of betrayal and deception, and both hint at (without confirming) favors done and eyes averted for cold, hard cash. But what is unnerving about the Cox report in contrast to Starr's is how completely out of control the administration was. The report also opens up the White House to the accusation that it was gullible and too trusting and dreamy about the intentions of its earmarked "strategic partner" in Beijing. Foe was mistaken as friend in the administration's determination to make it appear that the engagement policy with China was working according to plan. Putting the best face on it, this time Bill Clinton wasn't the seducer but the seduced.
Even presidential aides seem to realize that in these Chinese spymasters they have met their opportunistic match. In the days following the publication of the bipartisan Cox report, administration bravado all but disappeared, to be replaced by embarrassment and a few "Yes, buts." With some Democrats joining Republicans in calling for the firing of Attorney General Janet Reno and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, the president's normally brusque spin doctors avoided their usual dismissive lines of "Liar, liar, pants on fire" or "We're right, you're wrong."
And Clinton even dropped relying on the kind of linguistic quibbling he generally reserves for grand juries. Last March, when asked about Chinese spying, he went into hairsplitting mode, responding carefully as though a perjury charge was in the offing. "To the best of my knowledge no one has said anything to me about any espionage, which occurred by the Chinese against the labs, during my presidency." Now he was caught.
Faced with the Cox report and its chronicling of 20 years of Chinese espionage, extensive thefts of all of America's nuclear secrets and the easy acquisition by Beijing of dual-use technology and supercomputers crucial for a weapons buildup, the president pledged himself ready to implement 85 percent or so of the Cox panel's 38 recommendations on beefing up security and counterintelligence at Los Alamos and America's other nuclear research and development facilities. "I want to assure you and all the American people that I will work very hard with the Congress to protect our national security," he told an audience in Texas on the day Cox's report was published.
Of course, that doesn't mean the administration is crying uncle. The scandal defenders seem to be trying a lighter touch in their spin to counter a report that Energy Secretary Bill Richardson acknowledges is "balanced and statesmanlike." Their handling this time around is more soft-voiced Lanny Davis than screaming James Carville. The facts aren't being disputed so much as interpreted. The defense is four-pronged.
First, the administration and congressional Democrats anxious about what this scandal means for next year's elections claim the administration is not solely at fault -- after all, nuclear espionage also occurred during the watch of previous presidents, including two Republicans. …