- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 20, 2000

President-elect George W. Bush stopped at the White House to press a call on President Clinton Tuesday. In the spirit of bipartisan geniality he was trying to pay his host a compliment when irony, in the person of an unwitting reporter, intruded.

"It's such a huge honor to come [to the White House] as the president-elect," Mr. Bush said. "I don't think I'll really, fully realize the impact until I swear in. I expect the president would say the same thing. And I am humbled and honored, and I can't thank the president enough for his hospitality. He didn't need to do this."

"Yes, he did," said the reporter. "It's protocol."

Perhaps only a reporter could look at the last eight years and conclude that Mr. Clinton felt himself bound by protocol. Whether it's Oval Office sexcapades with an intern (President Reagan's vision of protocol, remember, compelled him to keep his suit jacket on, to say nothing of removing other articles of clothing) or making false statements to federal judges, he has abided by formalities for the most part when he had no other choice. Like the English language, which Mr. Clinton tortured over the meaning of the word "is," White House protocol had to curtsey to Mr. Clinton, rather than the other way around.

Mr. Bush found out the hard way what the word means to Mr. Clinton. It is not customary, for example, for sitting presidents to get actively involved in campaigns to succeed them. Mr. Clinton couldn't resist. "I mean, how bad could I be?" said Mr. Clinton during a campaign stop while pretending to be Gov. Bush in what a Reuters reporter called a "barbed" monologue. "I've been governor of Texas; my daddy was president; I own a baseball team." How presidential.

But it wasn't barbs alone by which Mr. Clinton sought to shape the outcome of the race to his liking. Even after Mr. Bush officially won the race, the Clinton administration refused to make available to him funds for his transition. The delay has undoubtedly slowed the process by which Mr. Bush prepares to put his Cabinet and other appointees into place stalling necessary security background checks on them, for example and by extension the political agenda he promised American voters he would promote. The harm to Mr. Bush is far greater than it would have been to Mr. Gore, who would have had Democratic appointees in place from a Clinton administration.

The Clinton administration offers two responses to this complaint. First, the head of the General Services Administration (GSA), which provides transition funds and office space, said it was unwilling to give Mr. Bush money and keys for transition work because he was not the "apparent" winner. Not only was Mr. Bush the "apparent" winner after several recounts took place. He was the certified winner after Florida's secretary of state, Katherine Harris, officially announced he had won the state's electoral votes. Second, Mr. Clinton said he had nothing to do with the decision to withhold transition aid from Mr. Bush. Please. Does anyone think Mr. Clinton wouldn't have been leaning on the GSA to provide money for Mr. Gore had the vice president been the certified winner?

Notwithstanding Mr. Clinton's brand of courtesy, Mr. Bush did his best to be polite during their meeting. He, at least, understands the meaning of protocol.

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