That every time the Republicans ask the first...

WHY IS IT

March 24, 1994|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

WHY IS IT that every time the Republicans ask the first lady or the president to answer tough questions about Whitewatergate, they just say "No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No!"?

I don't know. He says it isn't important since it happened many years in the past. In fact, he said this week that he is the only president who was ever subjected to such questioning and criticism for something that happened "so long ago."

Actually, in 1884 when Grover Cleveland was running for president, he was attacked for having fathered an illegitimate child in 1874. Even after he won that election, the issue never totally went away.

Also in that campaign, Democrat Cleveland's Republican opponent, James G. Blaine, was attacked for an issue even older than Cleveland's paternity. Blaine was involved in a 1869 fraud involving the railroad bonds of a Little Rock railroad, and this was used against him in 1884. (Ahh, Little Rock. The more things change, the more they stay the same, as they like to say at the Rose Law Firm.)

An even older scandal dogged Cleveland during his term and into the next campaign. He had dodged the draft in the Civil War. When he vetoed pension bills and made gestures of reconciliation to ex-Confederates, Union veterans went crazy. They attacked Grover in the 1888 election campaign. His opponent was an authentic war hero, Gen. Benjamin Harrison. The veterans worked hard for him and against Cleveland and Harrison won.

*

Am I being unkind and unfair to use the word "Whitewatergate"? Yeah. (So?) The New Dictionary of American Slang defines "-gate" this way: "combining word An exposed affair of corruption, venality, etc of the sort indicated: Allengate/Billygate/Koreagate/Lancegate [fr the Watergate scandals of the early 1970s]."

I'm saddened that they didn't include "Floodgate." I coined that when Rep. Dan Flood of Pennsylvania got into hot water in 1980. I hate to brag, but I'm pretty good at such cheap shots. Everybody uses "Whitewatergate" today, but the first use in any major American newspaper, according to a search by our electronic librarians, was in a headline on an editorial in The Sun on Dec. 23, 1993. I wrote it.

"-gate" in this usage is so prevalent today, and so assumed to be post-Watergate, that a famous drama critic made a natural mistake in reviewing the Broadway revival of "Damn Yankees." He assumed that the character in the musical who portrays the devil was re-named "Applegate" as a topical update. Apple-gate, get it? Garden of Eden? Forbidden fruit?

When I read the devil was named Applegate, I drew the same conclusion as the famous critic. But I looked it up. In the original Broadway musical (1955) and the 1954 Douglass Wallop novel the musical is based on, "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant," the devil is named Applegate.

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