On Sacred Ground 
Controversial Burials at Arlington Cemetery 
December 4, 1997
Courtesy of ABC-TV's Nightline
TED KOPPEL:

A couple of years ago, along with a number of other people, I wrote a letter to the secretary of the army requesting that my former colleague, John Scali, be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. John had for years been diplomatic correspondent here at ABC News and President Nixon had appointed him to be the ambassador, the US ambassador to the United Nations. John had also played a unique role in American history by acting as a secret go-between, carrying messages from the White House to the Soviet Embassy here in Washington and back again during the Cuban missile crisis. We used to joke that John Scali was the man who saved the world from nuclear disaster, but there was actually some truth to that.

I tell you the story so that you will know that it is not unprecedented for an ambassador who did not serve in the US military to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, but it is highly unusual. So when a conservative magazine published a story last month alleging that the Clinton administration had, in effect, sold about a dozen burial plots at Arlington to major contributors, you can just imagine what hit the fan. Nightline correspondent Chris Bury has examined the story in some detail. 

CHRIS BURY, ABC NEWS (VO)

The story begins with a perfectly legitimate question. Why did the Clinton administration appear to be approving more exceptions to the rules for burial at Arlington National Cemetery than its predecessors? That question was first raised back in March by veteran journalist George Wilson, who now covers the Pentagon for the Army Times, an independent newspaper specializing in military affairs. 

GEORGE WILSON, “ARMY TIMES”

I’ve covered the military for more than 20 years, mostly for the Washington Post and I have a lot of friends in the army and one of them called me to say did you know that Army Secretary Togo West is granting a record number of exceptions. And I said no, and I said how come? And he said that’s what we want to know.

CHRIS BURY (on camera) 

In general, burial at Arlington Cemetery is reserved for the nation’s most highly decorated military men and women, those who die in active duty, serve for 20 years and their spouses. But cemetery officials have to reject many requests for burial because space here is limited. The secretary of the army has the discretion and authority to approve exceptions for family members and other Americans, military and civilian, who have served their country. (VO) In June, the Army Times published a straightforward story reporting that Army Secretary West had indeed waived the rules for burial “almost triple the average of his recent predecessors”. 

GEORGE WILSON

They couldn’t give an explanation. It was informally passed on to me that perhaps a lot of WWII vets were dying, but in response to my written queries there was no explanation. 

CHRIS BURY (VO) 

The next week, Army Secretary West tried to explain. In a letter to the Army Times he wrote, “The remarkable thing about these waivers is not the number that has been granted, but rather the number of requests, a pattern of increases, principally in requests for exceptions from family members wishing to be buried in the same grave site as their loved ones. “

GEORGE WILSON

I had gone up the hill several times to try and get West to release the names on the theory that this would clear it up for everybody. But he refused to give me the names on the theory that the families who had been given exceptions would be harassed.

CHRIS BURY (VO) 

So George Wilson was unable to substantiate or dismiss rumors he had heard from sources in the military. 

GEORGE WILSON

In March, the allegations were made that there was political favoritism, but by the time I had done all the legwork, I couldn’t get a smoking gun. I didn’t find any hard proof that there had been any campaign contributors buried in Arlington Cemetery. 

CHRIS BURY (VO) 

In Washington, one local television station picked up the story but the national news media ignored it until last month. The conservative magazine Insight, sister publication of the Washington Times, published a story under this sensational headline, “Burial plots in the national war cemeteries, including Arlington, allegedly have been bought by fat—cat donors to Clinton’s re—election committee and the DNC, who aren’t even veterans.” 

PAUL RODRIGUEZ 

The allegations were there were donors, one or more donors who had gotten through the waiver list. We were told it was about a dozen. 

CHRIS BURY (VO) 

Indeed, managing editor Paul Rodriguez, citing unnamed Defense Department sources wrote, “Pressure from political bigwigs apparently helped gain coveted waivers for dozens of big time political donors or friends of the Clintons. “ (interviewing) Did the facts warrant that? 

GEORGE WILSON 

I think they went way beyond the facts. I mean I spent months at this. I went to the cemetery, I talked to the superintendent, I talked to people on duty and I couldn’t prove that and I don’t think their magazine proved it either. 

PAUL RODRIGUEZ 

I stand by the sources who passed on the allegations. It’s not a matter of defending my story. I don’t think I have to defend it. I reported as best as possible what very important people who I’ve worked with before passed on as allegations of wrongdoing.

CHRIS BURY (VO) 

At first the White House responded only with a strong statement. “The report making these allegations is scurrilous and untrue, based on anonymous sources and innuendo, not the facts.” 

PAUL BEGALA 

It was a lie and they knew or should have known that it was a lie, but they didn’t care. 

CHRIS BURY (VO) 

Paul Begala, a counselor to the president, said he first considered the source and then dismissed the story. 

PAUL BEGALA 

My level of outrage is just impossible to breach when you’re dealing with the right—wing press. They know no accountability. They have no standards. They’re utterly lacking in any integrity when it comes to this president. 

CHRIS BURY (on camera) 

White House officials underestimated how that one report alleging favoritism here at Arlington would kick start the scandal machinery of modern Washington. In a matter of hours the story would ricochet from a small conservative magazine to the talk radio circuit to the halls of Congress and then to the front pages of newspapers across the country. (Commercial Break) 

TED KOPPEL 

It didn’t take very long for the allegation of political donors paying for waivers for burials at Arlington Cemetery to leap from the pages of a conservative magazine to the airwaves of some of America’s best known conservative talk shows. Once again, Nightline’s Chris Bury. 

OLIVER NORTH 

We’re now placing in hallowed ground where veterans ought to be interred ... 

CHRIS BURY (VO) 

On Tuesday, November 18th, Insight magazine faxed pre - publication copies of its story, charging dozens of big time Democratic donors had bought their way into Arlington, to nearly 200 media outlets, including the titans of conservative talk radio. 

OLIVER NORTH 

What we’re talking about, my friends, is something that’s a travesty.

CHRIS BURY (VO) 

Throughout the week, talk show hosts Oliver North, Gordon Liddy and Rush Limbaugh gave the allegations heavy play on their nationally syndicated broadcasts. 

RUSH LIMBAUGH 

I have, I’m holding it here, I have an advanced copy of the story. Pressure from political bigwigs at the White House and within the Democratic Party apparently helped gain coveted waivers from top brass at the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs for dozens of big time political donors or friends of the Clintons. 

CHRIS BURY (VO) 

Rush Limbaugh says he did occasionally warn his listeners that the story of Arlington graves for sale had not been proven. But did he fan the flames in spite of the facts? 

RUSH LIMBAUGH 

A lot of people misunderstand talk radio, especially me. They think I take an issue and I look at it and say man, people ought to be made about this and I go on the radio and I rev people up and get ‘em all emotional and fired up and you can’t do that. You cannot manufacture emotion that doesn’t exist. This emotion, this readiness to believe that Clinton is capable of something like this was already there and this magazine story simply unleashed it.

CHRIS BURY (VO) 

In Washington, meanwhile, on the day after the allegations first hit talk radio, Republican politicians pounced. 

SEN ARLEN SPECTER (November 20) 

Well, I think it will require a hearing. 

CHRIS BURY (VO) 

Sen Arlen Specter demanded an investigation.

SEN ARLEN SPECTER 

Right now we ought to know because people are just livid about it. It is a raw nerve when you talk about hallowed ground and Arlington and General Lee and all the great military leaders and President Kennedy, to have that ground up for sale is just horrendous. So let’s find out what the facts are. 

CHRIS BURY (VO) 

The chairman of the Republican National Committee did not wait before issuing this press release. “This action goes way beyond selling sleepovers in the Lincoln Bedroom, coffee parties in the Map Room or Air Force One joy rides. This is sacred land, reserved for those who risked their lives in the fight for freedom, not fat—cat contributors.”

JIM NICHOLSON, RNC CHAIRMAN 

The Clinton—Gore people have developed a pattern of behavior where they have, indeed, sold access to our national treasuries (sic), the Lincoln Bedroom, the cabinet room, Air Force One. So there’s certainly a credible reason to believe that while as shocking as this sounded that it certainly could have occurred. 

CHRIS BURY 

You’re issuing a fairly inflammatory press release about information you don’t know is true or not. 

JIM NICHOLSON 

Well, again, we had reason to believe that they would do this based on what else they have done. 

CHRIS BURY (VO)

By now, the major news organizations were pestering White House Spokesman Mike McCurry for answers. 

MIKE MCCURRY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY (November 20) 

This is a story that appeared largely uncorroborated with anonymous sources in a conservative right—wing publication. It was picked up on the hate radio talk circuit and inflamed yesterday and now we’re sitting here talking about it with an article that as near as everyone can say, and this has been said now by the army and said by the White House, has no basis in fact and we’re treating it as if it has some legitimacy.

CHRIS BURY (VO)

But the very next day, questions about favoritism at Arlington National Cemetery appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times and in other major newspapers. 

DOYLE MCMANUS, “LOS ANGELES TIMES” 

Were the mainstream media used? You bet. And we’re used all the time by all kinds of people. But we weren’t used in this case by the conservative hate talk circuit, as the White House likes to say. The mainstream media didn’t go with this story until members of Congress, Senator John McCain, Senator Arlen Specter, Speaker Newt Gingrich, were saying that this was an issue that needed some investigation. 

TOGO WEST (November 21) 

Today we announce that we disclosed the names of all burial authorizations granted since January of 1993. 

CHRIS BURY (VO) 

By the end of the week, as the media and political pressure built, Army Secretary West finally released a list of 69 people who had been granted waivers for burial at Arlington. 

TOGO WEST

Four of the authorizations granted by the president, 58 by me as secretary of the army and seven by the acting secretaries during that, the acting secretaries of the army during that period before us.

CHRIS BURY (VO) 

Only one, the former US ambassador to Switzerland, Larry Lawrence, had been a major Democratic donor. But the Clinton administration insisted Lawrence qualified, not only because he died during hid diplomatic service, but also, officials insisted, because of his combat record aboard a torpedoed Merchant Marine ship during WWII.. White House counsel Lanny Davis told the New York Times, “He was thrown overboard and suffered a serious head injury. “ Other White House officials felt vindicated. 

MIKE MCCURRY 

I think a lot of people were whipped up into a frenzy for no good reason and I think good journalism and probably harder, smarter, faster work on behalf of the White House to get all the facts out there, might have prevented this story from having the rights that it had. 

PAUL BEGALA 

Any fair look at this shows that there was no political inference but in the media age, we now have lived to see the fruition of Mark Twain’s prediction that a lie can get all the way around the world before truth can pull its boots on. 

CHRIS BURY 

But that was before today when the White House discovered, much to its dismay, that in the case of Ambassador Lawrence, at least, the truth is not so simple. 

TED KOPPEL 

The strange story of Ambassador Lawrence’s military service, when we come back. (Commercial Break) 

TED KOPPEL 

The controversy over the burials at Arlington reignited today with word that a Clinton appointee may have fabricated his military record. This, just weeks after the administration reaffirmed its recommendation that he be buried at Arlington. Nightline’s Chris Bury continues his report. 

TOGO WEST 

There is no dispute, there is no controversy, there is no uncertainty ... 

CHRIS BURY (VO) 

Nearly two weeks ago in his briefing to reporters, Army Secretary Togo West passionately defended the waiver he granted so Ambassador Larry Lawrence could be buried in Arlington. 

TOGO WEST 

The fact is that as a member of the Merchant Marines who enlisted at age 18, who was wounded during conflict and who then served later as ambassador and died at his post, when his recommendation was made upon application of his family there was no disagreement anywhere.

CHRIS BURY (VO) 

But Ambassador Lawrence, who in January 1996 was buried in one of the most prestigious places at Arlington, near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, may never have been wounded, may never have been aboard that torpedoed ship, may never have served in the Merchant Marines at all. 

REP TERRY EVERETT 

We have as carefully as possible checked every possible source that we know to check. We’ve not been able to find any verification that Mr Lawrence served in the Merchant Marines. 

CHRIS BURY (VO) 

Lawrence claimed he had served with the Merchant Marine off the coast of Murmansk in northern Russia when his ship was torpedoed on March 20, 1945. But today, the chairman of a House subcommittee that investigates veterans affairs produced military documents from that ship, the SS Horace Bushnell. 

REP TERRY EVERETT 

He is not listed as a crew member on the ship at the time it was torpedoed nor is there any indication that from a very detailed description, which you have of the injuries suffered by the crew, is there any mentioning of anyone by the name of Lawrence or is there any mentioning of anyone that had suffered a head injury and fallen overboard.

CHRIS BURY (on camera) 

The evidence is accumulating that Larry Lawrence may have concocted an elaborate fiction to produce a military record that he, in fact, did not have. A longtime employee of Lawrence’s told Nightline that he once asked for research on Merchant Marine ships and was given the name of the Horace Bushnell and some time after that Lawrence first started telling the story of being knocked off the torpedoed ship. The details became so ingrained in his resume that the Russian government gave Lawrence a special award for his bravery during a ceremony in Washington the day before President Clinton’s first inauguration. (VO) Lawrence was a wealthy developer who owned this luxury hotel in San Diego and contributed $200,000 to Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. The Clintons vacationed at his seaside California home and, in 1993, the president appointed Lawrence US ambassador to Switzerland. When he died, his widow asked the State Department, the army and the White House for help in securing her husband a spot in Arlington. 

MIKE MCCURRY

I can imagine and have some recollection myself that his spouse called here. 

CHRIS BURY (VO) 

Today, White House Spokesman McCurry conceded it would be distressing if Lawrence’s military record was a sham. But apparently the White House did not bother to check Lawrence’s maritime service record before it proclaimed him a combat veteran. 

MIKE MCCURRY 

I mean, I told you what I knew based on what I had always heard from people who were close to him and who knew of, presumably knew what his alleged record was or what they thought his alleged record was. 

CHRIS BURY (VO) 

What about the State Department? 

STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN 

There was no reason to believe that it wasn’t true. 

CHRIS BURY (VO) 

And the Pentagon? 

CAPT. MICHAEL DOUBLEDAY, PENTAGON SPOKESMAN

My guess is that there is not a great deal of time to do a lot of research during a waiver request. 

CHRIS BURY (on camera) 

Tonight, a somewhat embarrassed White House says it will ask the State Department for a complete investigation and there is still a possibility that records supporting Lawrence’s claim to combat will somehow turn up. But the official State Department request for Lawrence’s burial at Arlington says his serious head injuries in March 1945 required many months of convalescence. Six months later, Larry Lawrence was playing football at the University of Arizona. His biography says he graduated in 1948. The University of Arizona tells Nightline there is no record of that either. Ted? 

TED KOPPEL 

Why do you think that there was such a relatively casual investigation into Larry Lawrence’s background when the issue of his burial at Arlington came up? 

CHRIS BURY 

The secretary of the army, Togo West, had a dossier with the State Department recommendations which came from Lawrence’s own boss, Richard Holbrooke, and then spoke very convincingly of his war service and his combat record. Why it wasn’t done somewhere else down the line is a good question. When he was appointed by the president, when he was confirmed by the Senate, when the State Department vetted him for the post, somewhere along the line someone goofed up and didn’t do a good job.

TED KOPPEL 

Before we get too holy about this kind of thing I suppose the question has to be asked how that original story got as much traction as it did. I’m speaking of the story of perhaps as many as a dozen major contributors to the Republican Party in effect reserving plots at Arlington. 

CHRIS BURY 

Well that’s part of the climate of Washington. The Republican politicians were quick to jump on it, the talk radio show was quick to make the charge, we reporters were quick to report what the senior members of Congress were telling us without doing an adequate job of checking for ourselves. 

TED KOPPEL 

Is this now, in effect, a stalemate where each side can point to the other and say you guys screwed it up? 

CHRIS BURY 

I think there’s no question that Arlington has become a political battleground. We’ve got Republicans leaking us this information about Larry Lawrence, Democrats who are making leaks about a senior Republican on Capitol Hill who pulled strings to get his father into Arlington National Cemetery. So this most sacred of American spots is just the latest part, latest battleground of American politics. 

TED KOPPEL 

Chris Bury, thank you.