Altman forgot Nixon rule: Admit you erred, cut losses



WASHINGTON -- The Democrats' insistence, correctly, that the Whitewater case is not Watergate has been heard so often by now that it has reached the level of cliche.

Yet it is puzzling why one of the central political lessons of the Watergate scandal seems not to have gotten through until much too late to certain figures in the Whitewater investigation, notably Roger Altman, soon to depart as deputy secretary of treasury.

That lesson, driven home once more with great clarity by the recent television documentary series on the affair and its cover-up that drove Richard M. Nixon from the presidency 20 years ago, is simply that it is smart politics to admit error at the outset and cut your losses.

Nixon and his political henchmen not only failed to do so but arranged for hush money to buy the silence of the Watergate break-in perpetrators after they were arrested and brought to trial.

Fred LaRue knew about such things. He was a political adviser to John Mitchell, Nixon's attorney general and campaign chairman.

LaRue says in the Watergate television series that if only he had told Mitchell at the time that paying off the Watergate burglars was stupid and dangerous, the whole Watergate affair would not have mushroomed to its politically fatal proportions for Nixon.

The central allegations of possible financial misconduct when Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas at the core of the Whitewater )) investigation do not remotely hold a candle to the crimes committed from the Nixon White House itself.

But the behavior of Altman, former White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum and others in apparently trying to move the controversy away from the Clintons gave critics the peg they needed to air charges of a similar cover-up.

Contradictions in the testimony of Altman, Treasury counsel Jean Hanson and others on the number of contacts Altman had with White House aides on Whitewater obliged even strong Clinton Democratic supporters like Sens. Don Riegle of Michigan and Paul Sarbanes of Maryland to indicate it would be best for all concerned if Altman resigned.

It is probably unrealistic not to expect a certain amount of finessing by subordinates when a superior's position or reputation is threatened by information that comes to those subordinates.

The "heads up" that Nussbaum got from Altman that the Clintons were involved in a savings and loan investigation is probably common place in government and was a far cry from the plotting to avoid disclosure of foul deeds that marked the Nixon White House.

It is not all that surprising, either, that George Stephanapoulos, the young "senior" White House adviser to Clinton, blew his stack when he learned that a well-known Republican prosecutor bounced by the Clinton administration, Jay Stephens, had been hired to work on an aspect of the Whitewater investigation.

But Stephanapoulos insisted that his anger never was translated into any action to get Stephens removed and there has been no evidence to the contrary.

Still, one would have thought that the memory of the Watergate cover-up and the intentional lies to Congress at the time of the Iran-contra affair by then White House aide Oliver North would have been sufficient to remind anyone remotely involved with Whitewater in the Clinton administration to avoid even the appearance of dissembling.

One reason some of it took place may be that those so involved saw any comparison between Whitewater and Watergate as so far-fetched that the central lesson of letting it all hang out at the very beginning did not have to be applied.

Also, there has developed a fortress mentality among some in the Clinton White House that its most conservative Republican foes are out to do the president in at all costs, and hence he must be protected.

The dismissal of Whitewater special prosecutor Robert J. Fiske and his replacement by Kenneth B. Starr, a Republican political activist, by a three-judge panel led by a conservative appointee is seen as only the latest and most blatant evidence of this campaign to "get" Clinton.

Under the circumstances, it is perhaps understandable that administration aides would start circling the wagons.

Even so, the prime lesson of Watergate -- tell all before it gets out anyway -- remains sound advice, for Democrats and Republicans in power alike.

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