Smells like 1973 all over again

March 09, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE — ...TC HAVRE DE GRACE -- All of a sudden there's something in the air, something stirring and unsettling, something from long ago. It's a piquant scent. Like the best perfumes it's a little scary, a little exciting, and as the days go on it's increasingly familiar, at least to experienced noses.

It may inspire the venerable among us to recall that long, long ago, in our very own country, a lawyer-president won a second term in office after a campaign in which money was raised in mysterious ways and assorted laws were broken.

In the year after that happened, unpleasant facts kept dribbling out, eliciting official denials, which were followed by more facts. The president's loyal troops, feeling increasingly besieged, kept churning out new defense plans, which one after the other became inoperative. Meanwhile, those who despised the president -- and there were a lot of them, across the country -- smelled the panic, and kept closing in.

Now this spring's perfume has elements of the same presidential panic, the same tension sweat within the executive perimeter, and, outside the fortress, the same musky mix of adrenalin and a sort of blood lust. Yes, it's all very familiar.

That besieged president from long ago and this one are like the bookends for a generation, painted differently to suggest a contrast, but a matched set beneath the paint. Both were poor boys too bright and ambitious for their own long-term good. Each had the sense that, as his cause was just, he could do no wrong -- that because whatever he did was for the right, whatever he did to further his own ends was therefore legitimized.

That president was the Dark One. He was ill at ease with strangers, shifty-eyed, vaguely menacing. Even his strengths worked against him. He was perceived to be so correct in his sexual behavior as to seem deviant to a society which considered adultery an expression of liberation. Especially to liberated Washington, the Dark One seemed ascetic, a vindictive Puritan like those who burned witches.

This president is the Sun King, as he was called early in his public career by a journalist who covered him. He is happiest in crowds, dysfunctional in genuine personal relationships, perceived to be so uncontrolled in his sexual behavior as to seem deviant to a society beginning to rediscover traditional concepts of morality.

But those are surface distinctions. The similarities run much deeper. The Dark One assumed in his day, as does the Sun King a generation later, that his enemies were bad people, and that it was appropriate to use his power to punish them. The Sun King, the first lawyer elected president since the Dark One, also surrounds himself with lawyers, also emits lawyerly evasions when cornered, and is also widely despised for this behavior.

"Mistakes were made"

''Mistakes were made.'' Yes indeed they were, in 1972 and in 1996, and laws were broken. And indignation over the arrogance of the lawbreakers gradually swelled. A year after the election of 1972, the vice president was gone, caught in a felony, and the last lifeboats were leaving the sinking administration.

In the first week of March, 1973, four months after the successful re-election of the Dark One, an FBI memorandum was disclosed describing efforts by campaign officials to impede investigations of Watergate. Days later a defendant in the Watergate break-in, James McCord, cracked, and told a judge about political pressure being brought to bear to keep the lid on. After that it was all down hill. Nineteen months after the election of 1972 the president who broke laws, knowing it would be all right because he was not a crook, resigned.

The same pungent scent from those March days 24 years ago is in the air today.

It'll take more to get rid of the Sun King than was required to depose the Dark One, and for obvious reasons. The Dark One was perceived by the permanent bureaucracy in Washington as an enemy, while the Sun King is still seen as a friend. The media barons hated the Dark One, but made no secret in either of his elections of their infatuation with the Sun King.

No ambitious young journalists from major newspapers have yet gone after the Sun King with the single-mindedness and energy of the Woodward-Bernstein combination of the Watergate days, and if they were to do so it's doubtful they would have the same editorial support. But those things could be changing.

The press likes being on the inside, but not when the roof is falling in. So the networks, now, night after night, have begun to report the growing scandals. Even the Wall Street Journal's Al Hunt, one of the Sun King's chief apologists, suddenly calls his 1996 campaign ''the most unethical presidential quest since'' -- guess who's.

The roof may not be falling in quite yet, but it's creaking ominously. And there's that old familiar aroma in the air. Someone should ask a good Washington lawyer like Paul Sarbanes what he remembers about impeachment procedures.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 3/09/97

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