December 15, 2002


White House aides were taken aback last week when Henry Kissinger, seeking to avoid further controversy about his consulting business, abruptly stepped down as chair of the independent commission to investigate the 9-11 terrorist attacks. But some administration sources say they may have only themselves to blame. Unlike other high-profile presidential appointments, NEWSWEEK has learned, Kissinger was never “vetted” for conflicts of interest by White House lawyers.

I served on a very low-profile White House advisory panel some years ago. I had to fill out rather a lot of conflict-of-interest paperwork, and what I did was the streamlined version that people who don't matter and aren't likely to have conflicts filled out. Nonetheless, I had to disclose where all my money comes from, who I owed money to, where I had lived over an extended period, etc., etc., etc. But Kissinger, well. . . . it's just absurd. The only excuse I can think of is that everyone knows that Kissinger is a walking, talking conflict of interest, so that there's no need for disclosure -- a view that, strangely, almost makes sense.

Still, this is another example of dreadful tone-deafness. If the Afghan War and the midterm elections showed that the White House can run a taut, effective operation, this (together with the fact that Trent Lott's problems continue to ramify) shows that "can" isn't the same as "always will."