The ghost of Nixon has sat down in Clinton's chair There's even a role for Watergate complex

January 25, 1998|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A quarter of a century after the political bombshell of Watergate burst on the country and ultimately brought down Richard M. Nixon, another president is facing allegations of a different sort that raise the specter of his presidency also coming to a premature end.

That conjecture is itself premature because nothing has yet been produced to prove the charge that President Clinton had an affair with a young White House intern and then tried to get her to lie about it under oath.

But like the Watergate case, what is alleged would constitute conspiracy to obstruct justice -- a cover-up and an impeachable crime.

That important similarity is only one of several shared by the two presidential scandals:

Taped conversations were and are at the core of the allegations -- although of different origins and different circumstances.

Both presidents had won landslide re-elections despite disclosures of potentially damaging information. The Watergate break-in came less than four months before Nixon's victory.

Both those landslides were driven by excessive zeal -- Nixon's in pursuit of damaging information about his opposition and Clinton's in pursuit of record campaign fund raising for Democrats -- to win what were perceived as easy election for them.

In both cases, personal secretaries of the president -- Rose Mary Woods for Nixon and Betty Currie for Clinton -- were and are identified as having played key roles in the sagas.

When the Watergate break-in occurred in 1972, the thought that it would end with impeachment hearings and the resignation of Nixon seemed far-fetched, if not impossible.

It seemed inconceivable then that an incumbent president would in any way be connected with a "third-rate burglary" of the opposition party's headquarters by masked men.

Similarly, although reports and suspicions of marital infidelity on the part of Clinton were well publicized during his 1992 presidential campaign, the notion that, having survived them, he might continue such conduct in the White House was dismissed all but the staunchest Clinton-haters.

In the Watergate case, it took two years to unravel the story in all its dimensions, but in the end it was clear that Nixon and his White House cronies not only had lied to cover up the break-in, but had been guilty of a wide range of other crimes that amounted to subverting the Constitution. It was a gang assault in which many of the conspirators went to jail before Nixon was deposed. His whole administration was discredited.

The current allegations against Clinton, by contrast, have come at him quickly and are directed at him as an individual on the basis of individual actions.

Only one other person, his lawyer-friend Vernon Jordan, has been implicated, and only in the charge of attempting to get the young woman involved to perjure herself.

For now at least, the matter does not appear to be developing into the sort of "national nightmare" that Watergate became.

The critical development in the Watergate affair was the disclosure of secretly recorded White House tapes that triggered a drawn-out struggle by investigators to get access to them, during which transcripts were brazenly doctored. Ultimately, their release was ordered by the Supreme Court.

According to White House press secretary Mike McCurry, there has been no such taping system in existence in the Clinton White House, and the president has repeatedly pledged in the past few days to turn over all information requested by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. But Nixon also made a similar pledge in Watergate, then fought disclosure tooth and nail.

While it appears to be a stretch to equate Clinton's current

troubles with what Nixon faced in Watergate, there are some stylistic similarities in how he has responded so far to the allegations.

Clinton has said that he is not "dodging," but when asked the simple and straightforward question of what his relationship was with former intern Monica Lewinsky, a resident at (where else?) the Watergate complex, he at first said there "is" -- present tense -- no sexual relationship.

Before saying more, he said, he had to gather all the pertinent documents and other information requested by Starr before he could answer.

What documents, it could be fairly asked, did he need to inform himself what his relationship was with the young woman, how he knew her and whether he had talked to her?

Like Nixon in Watergate, Clinton seemed a man playing for time and a plan of defense. Remember Nixon's avowal that, "I am not a crook," and his hedged admission that "mistakes were made" without saying by whom?

Similarities between that earlier scandal and the current furor over the new allegations against Clinton do not, however, put the two matters in the same league -- not yet, anyway.

The case for impeachment of Nixon was massive and comprehensive, involving in addition to the White House cover-up a widespread abuse of governmental power that included other break-ins and deceptions.

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