Wrong way of viewing Watergate, Whitewater



WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's kind words about former President Richard Nixon upon his death were in keeping with Clinton's generally approving attitude toward Nixon's global gallivanting in the final year of his life, including his last trip to Russia, when Nixon drew the ire of Russian President Boris Yeltsin for hobnobbing with his political foes.

Clinton's approval was a measure of Nixon's success in his relentless campaign to restore his image and standing as a foreign-policy expert in the 20 years after his resignation in disgrace over the Watergate affair. By the same token, the occasion of his death inadvertently brought about a revisiting of the details of Watergate that underscored the folly of comparing that scandal to the Whitewater case.

As television and newspaper accounts recounted repeatedly the burglaries, the contemplated briberies, the character assassinations and the illegal uses of the FBI and CIA to cover up Watergate within the Oval Office, the allegations of sweetheart deals and possibly illegal campaign contributions in Arkansas 15 years ago seemed pale by comparison. And Hillary Clinton's patient replies to an hour's grilling by the White House press corps on Whitewater and her lucrative commodities trades, laid against rekindled memories of Nixon's doctored transcripts of secret tape recordings in the Watergate cover-up, further drew the contrast.

There is, however, a similarity between the manner in which Nixon saw Watergate and the way the Clintons profess to see Whitewater -- in each instance as a sharply partisan effort by the party out of power to undermine the presidency.

Before the first lady cooled down and had her tardy press conference, she had lashed out severely at the Republicans and other critics, calling their opposition "a well-organized and well-financed attempt to undermine my husband and, by extension, myself, by people who have a different political agenda . . ." The president shortly afterward chimed in that the Republicans were being "blatantly partisan" in trying to "gin up" a climate of "hysteria" over Whitewater.

Nixon likewise always preferred to treat the prosecution of Watergate as motivated chiefly by Democratic hopes and efforts to bring him down. In one of his post-resignation books, "In the Arena," he called Watergate "a concerted political vendetta by my opponents. Anyone who knows the workings of hardball politics," he wrote, "knows that the smoke screen of false accusations -- the myths of Watergate -- were not at all accidental. Watergate was not a morality play -- a battle between good guys in white and bad guys in black -- but rather a political struggle."

Nixon wrote that at the time his vice president, Spiro Agnew, resigned "in a personal scandal unrelated to Watergate" and before Gerald Ford was confirmed by the Senate as his successor, liberal Democrats concocted a scheme to grab the presidency under the succession law that put House Speaker Carl Albert, a Democrat, next in line in the absence of a sitting vice president.

"Ted Sorensen, a former speech writer for President Kennedy and a highly partisan critic of my policies," Nixon related, "asked Albert for permission to write a 'secret comprehensive contingency plan' so that the Democrats could take over the White House swiftly if I were to leave office. The plan even included suggestions for the tone of the new president's inaugural address and an agenda for his first week in office."

Nixon went on that "the prospect of winning through Watergate what they had failed to win at the polls was evidently too much for some Democrats to resist . . . So it was without irony that in my memoirs I referred to the final struggle over Watergate as my final political campaign."

It was obvious that during Watergate many Democrats hoped to see Nixon removed from office, just as today there are many Republicans who would like to see Clinton depart as a result of Whitewater.

But to attribute simply the hope of political advantage to either investigation -- and particularly Watergate, in which criminal activity was admitted and perpetrators went to jail -- mocks the legitimate quest for accountability in high public officials.

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