Richard Reeves

Clinton's Legacy: Waco

NEW YORK -- The New York Times published a pious "Tsk-tsk-tsk" editorial last Friday morning under the headline "Red Faces at the FBI." Our newspaper of record offered the opinion that admissions by the Justice Department that it has been misleading the American people for more than six years about what happened in Waco, Texas, on April 19, 1993, is "an embarrassing new element in one of the saddest chapters in FBI history."

"Embarrassing" is an embarassing little word to use after what the U.S. government did in Waco. The Bureau of Alochol, Tobacco and Firearms and then the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with Army and Air Force "observers" around, insanely escalated the botched delivery of a weapons charge warrant against a very unpleasant fellow running a nutcake church of sorts into an attack on innocent civilians. More than 80 men, women and children were killed or killed themselves.

Come on! The invasion of the Branch Davidian complex in Waco that day, after a multi-multimillion-dollar siege of 51 days, is one of the most disgraceful incidents in American history. How many times have the elected leaders of the United States launched large-scale military or paramilitary actions against its own citizens in peacetime? This is a story of arrogant stupidity, incompetence, brutality and lying at the highest levels of the government.

President Clinton, it is said, worries about his legacy. He should, because Waco is his legacy.

This invasion happened at home and most of the victims were fairly ordinary folks -- crazy by my standards, but no threat to the Republic. But it fits a pattern of the Clinton years: the almost casual use of overwhelming violence whenever the world's hyperpower is frustrated. We have all this power and, damn it, we're going to use it if you don't come to your senses. Listen world: You're making us do this!

And, if you remember, frustration was what Waco was about. For those 51 days out there in the middle of nowhere, the might of the United States was being challenged (and embarrassed) as the whole world watched. Well, maybe the world didn't watch because presumably most of us understood that this was not important to watch. We didn't even have to fly in B-2s from Missouri as we did in Kosovo. But David Koresh, the Davidian leader, was as valuable a symbol as Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic.

Again, if you remember, Attorney General Janet Reno, surely one of the most incompetent public officials in our history, said that among the reasons we had to go in with makeshift tanks and, we now know, pyrotechnics was that the paramilitaries surrounding the Davidians were getting tired, cranky even. And, of course, the budget meter was running. Those fools inside had to die to keep our taxes down.

The attorney general had been in office only 33 days when the FBI and the ATF rolled on D-Day. You probably remember, too, that there was this fuss over Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood, and the president had this awful time finding a woman attorney general to run the FBI among other things. Well, he paid a price for that, not in Waco so much as in Washington where she almost cost him his job while saving her own "credibility" and "integrity" behind shields of special prosecutors.

Actually, she became a hero after Waco by sitting up and telling Congress, on television, that she took full responsibility. Politically, therefore, President Clinton did not have to. Unfortunately for the president, there is a difference between the politics of the day and the history of his time.

The attorney general and the FBI will now try to deflect crticism by saying it only helps conspiracy theorists who think the government is deliberately trying to smash religious groups. I'm no conspiracy theorist. I don't think the government knows what it's doing -- and is scrambling to cover up what it did.

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