Bob Dole, we remember Watergate, too: differently

June 25, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

It's hard not to sneer at Bob Dole, who says prayers every night that America's voters have no memory. Imagine Dole demanding "the whole truth" about the Clinton White House and FBI files. Imagine Dole declaring, "I think it smells to high heaven. I remember Watergate." Dole had better hope nobody remembers Bob Dole during Watergate.

Two decades ago, he was the guy who wanted America to kiss off that investigation. He stood with Richard Nixon until the bloody end. Now he wants to make odious comparisons.

Bob Dole should have met Donald Pomerleau, who was police commissioner of Baltimore and a product of the Nixon Watergate mentality. You want to talk files, we'll talk files. The Clinton White House? What they know about digging up dirt couldn't fill Nixon's pants pockets. Or Donald Pomerleau's, either.

When Nixon put together his enemies list, when he had telephones illegally wiretapped, when he had innocent citizens followed, when he brought in the IRS to take care of his foes, he was sending a message to every two-bit bully in the country, including Pomerleau of Baltimore: Do what you want; we're in charge here now. Bob Dole remembers Watergate? Around here, we remember Pomerleau, who was its fallout, and we recall wiretaps and break-ins and the creation of dossiers on people who never broke a law in their lives.

As for the Clinton White House, nobody's defending what happened. A couple of political snoops in the basement made nearly 500 requests for FBI files, mostly about people who worked in the Bush or Reagan administrations. It's a breach of privacy, which we tend to guard nervously in this country. Especially since Nixon.

But some of those "Republican operatives" whose files were requested turn out, according to the New York Times, to be "White House groundskeepers." James Brady, the former spokesman for Ronald Reagan whose wife, Sarah, has been a Clinton ally on banning assault weapons, was on the list. James Brady is a "political enemy"?

"Much ado about nothing," Sarah Brady said the other day.

Nobody said such things about Richard Nixon's White House snooping.

Except maybe Bob Dole.

A little sense of perspective: Just as Watergate wasn't the "third-rate burglary" that the Nixon White House tried to call it, it also wasn't the joke that Bob Dole implied when he sarcastically declared that it occurred "on my night off," hoping the whole country would laugh it off.

Watergate was the tearing away of a veil, which confirmed that Richard Nixon had been doing all the things we'd suspected him of doing, such as calling himself a law and order man while his police agencies routinely violated civil liberties. Does anybody put the Clinton White House in the same league as those guys? Bob Dole, maybe, but who else?

Two decades ago, Richard Nixon made specific use of the FBI files his aides collected. Some still remember him talking to Bob Haldeman about having Teamster goons "beat the ---- out of" those protesting the war in Vietnam, "and really hurt 'em."

Such sentiments trickled down. In Baltimore, we had the police commissioner, Donald Pomerleau, building files against those dangerous souls who publicly protested their gas and electric rates or sanitary conditions at a city garbage dump. Nixon went after political opponents; those such as Pomerleau watched, and took their cues from the top.

When he discovered reporters here were digging into such practices, Pomerleau responded with more digging. One afternoon, he called me into his office at police headquarters.

"I know where you've been," he declared, "and I know who you've talked to. I know you've been told we're collecting personal information on" dozens of Baltimore political figures.

"Forget it," he said. "We're not doing that."

"You're not collecting personal information on any politicians?" I asked.

"Just the blacks," said Pomerleau. "Just the blacks. Just the blacks."

Which was a lie, but one that Pomerleau imagined acceptable. The arrogance had been passed down from Washington. Law enforcement agencies could do anything they wanted.

And, in the heat of that moment -- of Watergate, of the spillover into cities around the country -- we had Bob Dole declaring that the investigation should be moved "where it belongs -- behind the closed doors of the committee room BEGIN ELLIPSIS ... END ELLIPSIS to end the publicity-laden phase of the Watergate hearings."

In the committee room, deals could be made in private. In the committee room, Watergate could die without voters hearing the grimy details. Except for now. Now, let's run the Clinton White House connection to the FBI up the political flagpole and see who salutes.

And we should. Let's see if it really was just those two idiots in the White House basement, or if the files made their way to the Oval Office, where Bill Clinton made use of them and thus sent a message of bullying to law enforcement agencies around the country.

Bob Dole remembers Watergate? Some of us still remember Bob Dole, who tried to block one of the worst political scandals in American history for Richard Nixon, but wants to trumpet the Clinton connection to the high heavens.

Pub Date: 6/25/96

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