Most Americans may no longer remember Michael Chertoff, the New Jersey Republican who once headed the Department of Homeland Security — and who earned that position in part to reward his work on the Senate Whitewater Committee, where he served under New York’s Alfonse D’Amato as chief counsel.
But anyone who closely observed the antics of that committee — as I did while covering its ridiculous partisan witch hunt against the Clintons — will remember Chertoff all too well.
Unlike the committee’s Republican senators, along with their ardent followers among scandal-addled reporters and right-wing rubes, its top lawyer always seemed far too smart to believe any of the far-fetched accusations. But he was cynical enough to promote them with feigned indignation.
Which is why his sudden announcement that he will vote for Hillary Clinton on Nov. 8 is … surprising.
It isn’t so startling that Chertoff would reject Donald Trump, like many in his party’s neo-conservative wing who find the casino owner repulsive.
Having run a huge new government agency with daunting responsibilities after 9/11, Chertoff understands why the irascible and irredeemably ignorant Republican nominee is ill-suited to protect the national security of the United States.
And having worked with Clinton when she served in the Senate, Chertoff also knows she is strikingly well-prepared for that essential role.
As Chertoff told Renee Montagne on National Public Radio, Clinton “exhibited good understanding of what the issues and challenges were, [was] steady in terms of her approach and also interested in educating herself. And I generally found her to have good judgment. And in the area of national security, those kind of temperament issues and issues about being well-informed I think are critical tools for the next president at a period of time when I think our challenges to security are perhaps more acute than at any time since Sept. 11.”
The surprise isn’t that Chertoff would assess Clinton in those terms but that he would say so publicly and forthrightly. Living in New Jersey, where Trump adviser Chris Christie is still governor, Chertoff could have cast a vote for Clinton quietly and never said a word.
Yet the former prosecutor went still further, disavowing his own role in the scandal-mongering campaign against the Clinton administration. That is not merely surprising but gratifying to scandal skeptics.
Asked about Clinton’s email problems, Chertoff briskly brushed that overhyped “scandal” aside, too, comparing it with the Whitewater circus as a frivolous distraction from serious issues:
“In the end,” he told Montagne, “I go back to Sept. 11, 2001, and I was on duty. I was the head of the (Justice Department’s) Criminal Division and I was part of the immediate response to prevent that from happening again.
“In looking back on that I realized that in the ’90s we spent an enormous amount of time pursuing issues involving the Clintons’ associations back in Arkansas in the ’80s, Whitewater and other things, and we didn’t spend nearly the same amount of time on what (Osama) bin Laden was up to … And it reminded me that … the ability to spend an inordinate amount of time chasing small peccadilloes is a luxury we only have in a world at peace.”
If Chertoff didn’t quite confess that the prosecutors and congressional probers abused their authority — and that the Clintons were entirely innocent — he conceded that the pursuit of Whitewater was an absurd waste of precious time and resources.
It may be too little and it’s almost too late. But he gave a nod to the truth at long last, and that will have to suffice.
As for the media outlets that hyped Whitewater into such an enormous waste of time and money — seven years and probably well over $80 million altogether — their editors and producers might take the hint from Chertoff.
With Clinton’s emails and the Clinton Foundation, they are again taking their cue from partisans and ideologues, when they should bring the skeptical eye of journalism to every sensational charge. They might well discover that, as in Whitewater, there’s nothing there.