Not every blunder merits a '-gate' label

June 12, 1996|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Next Monday will mark the 24th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, and the Republicans are still trying to diminish the dimensions of that super-scandal and all its associated crimes by comparing lesser screw-ups with it.

The latest example is Bob Dole's comparison of Watergate with the disclosure that the FBI conducted background reports on some leading Republicans and turned them over to the Clinton White House. ''I remember Watergate, all the things that happened in Watergate because of these kind of tricks,'' Senator Dole said. ''We don't want to repeat it.''

In this latest fiasco, for which White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta has apologized while declaring that ''none of the information was improperly used,'' no political headquarters office was burglarized by a band of second-story men, as in Watergate. Apparently the worst that was done was that security checks were made on these prominent Republicans whose names remained on a list for Secret Service clearance after they had departed with President Bush in early 1993.

Not surprisingly, the Republicans are demanding congressional hearings on the matter even as the FBI itself and Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr are investigating it, the FBI to determine how it happened and Mr. Starr in connection with his inquiry into the 1993 White House travel-office firings. Former travel-office director Billy Dale was among those whose FBI file went to the White House, and leading Republicans smell hanky-panky.

Since they are in charge of Congress, the Republicans can and probably will go ahead with their hearings, and they may indeed find that the Clinton White House has been less than forthcoming about the matter -- which would not be too surprising about an operation that has been ham-fisted in its handling of a number of other mini-scandals.

None of this, however, makes this latest screw-up comparable to Watergate, the most devastating attempt to undermine constitutional government in this century. But that won't stop some conservative wordsmiths like New York Times columnist William Safire from calling the latest White House snafu ''Filegate,'' or some such.

A spate of billingsgate

Mr. Safire, who professes to have a reverence for language, has been polluting ours ever since he left Richard Nixon's employ as a speech writer and began coining ''gates'' -- starting with Billygate and Lancegate in the Jimmy Carter years. He and others have produced inanities like Koreagate, Contragate, Nannygate, Troopergate and now Travelgate, as if any of these screw-ups come close to Watergate.

If the public reaction to this silly labeling has been the conclusion that Watergate wasn't all that calamitous after all, or that these relatively bush-league scandals prove that ''everybody does it, but only the Nixon White House got caught,'' well, that's the way the ball bounces.

In an election year, it's probably too much to expect that the underdog candidate would refrain from trying to blow up the latest White House screw-up into another Watergate as another jab at Bill Clinton's character, which Mr. Dole seems to think remains his likeliest ticket to the Oval Office.

Referring to the FBI files on former Secretary of State Jim Baker, former Reagan White House aide Ken Duberstein and other exiled Republican White House figures, Senator Dole said ''the group reads like a Clinton enemies list.'' One might have thought he would not want to remind voters of the infamous Nixon list, but he no doubt thought doing so would get across his point about Clinton-as-Nixon.

The senator might have been better off politically to leave Watergate buried in its ignoble grave and settle for something else that he said: ''For an administration that's supposed to be the most ethical in history, the Clinton White House certainly makes a lot of mistakes.''

That Dole jibe was perfectly valid, without resurrecting Watergate as the comparison. Enough already with all these ''gates.'' Swing 'em closed.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 6/12/96

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