Current scandal no match for Watergate's gravity

October 01, 1998|By Carl Bernstein

NEW YORK -- Today, the U.S. House of Representatives stands on the verge of impeaching a president because the national interest has been overwhelmed by the cavalier actions of virtually everybody involved: the president, independent counsel, judiciary, media, the opposition party, President Clinton's legion of enemies and his battery of attorneys.

In the aftermath of Watergate, it was often said that the American system worked. From Sen. Sam Ervin to Judge John Sirica, from Sen. Howard Baker to Rep. Peter W. Rodino, from Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee to special prosecutor Leon Jaworski, from the Burger Supreme Court to even President Richard Nixon's lawyers -- all approached their roles with awe and a sense of heavy responsibility to the nation. In Mr. Clinton's case, there will be no such salutary verdict. Years from now, people may look back on the Monica Lewinsky saga as a moment of national madness in which almost all of the principals were out of control.

In May 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court decided unanimously -- and mindlessly -- that the Paula Jones sexual-harassment suit need not be postponed until the end of Mr. Clinton's presidency because, in the words of Justice John Paul Stevens, "the burden on the president's time and energy" was not heavy enough. Without that decision, the president's relationship with Ms. Lewinsky would have been about private, consensual sex, however tawdry, not about the future of the republic.

The response to the Supreme Court's edict by the president and his lawyers speaks volumes: a refusal to settle the Jones lawsuit for $700,000 and some sort of statement that would have sent Ms. Jones and her well-funded, right-wing supporters into the night.

Indeed, from the moment Ms. Lewinsky flashed her thong underwear, Mr. Clinton's actions in this national catastrophe have regularly subverted the interests of the United States and the presidency. In his narcissism, Mr. Clinton subscribes to the notion that the most important thing for the country is that he remain president -- whatever his actions, whatever the cost to the rest of us or to the majesty of his office, not to mention to the goals, now shattered, of the Democratic Party he revitalized.

Presidential misconduct

Here is a man who had yearned since childhood to be president, and then, with the press and Ms. Jones' gumshoes tracking any woman who ever crossed his path, entered into an affair that, if disclosed, almost certainly would have put Bob Dole in the White House in 1996.

Mr. Clinton's instinctive reaction after being found out was totally in character: to consult with the disgraced (and unprincipled) Dick Morris, who said he'd take an instant poll, then reported back that voters were "willing to forgive the president for adultery but not for perjury or obstruction of justice."

"Well, we'll just have to win then," responded Mr. Clinton. Truth, which would have served the national interest, and Mr. Clinton's, was not an option.

There followed seven months of lying and cover-up, ending with the president's perjurious video appearance before the grand jury -- seven months in which the country has been dragged through an ordeal that has weakened the American presidency, emboldened foreign dictators and terrorists, roiled the world's markets, frightened our allies, held us up to ridicule and consumed our politics.

Even now Mr. Clinton refuses to best serve the country by dropping his legalisms, whatever the personal danger, and saying what everyone knows: "I lied under oath."

Perhaps nothing illustrates independent counsel Kenneth Starr's perception of his duty -- and the national interest -- more than his abortive departure for Pepperdine University in the days when it looked as if his investigation had run out of steam and there was no sex scandal on the horizon.

As significant as any piece of evidence that Mr. Starr sent to the House Judiciary Committee was what was not in his salacious package: a single word about Whitewater, the White House travel office or the FBI files. Nor did the prosecutors ask Mr. Clinton a single question about any of those matters when he finally appeared before a grand jury.

As my conversations with people involved in Mr. Starr's investigation have made clear, he and his staff were convinced that the Clintons were guilty of obstruction of justice and perjury in Whitewater. And, based largely on the roadblocks thrown up by the White House, the prosecutors had come to believe Mr. Clinton was unfit to hold the presidency. But they lacked evidence.

With the arrival of Linda Tripp on Mr. Starr's doorstep last January, the dry hole Mr. Starr's investigators had been digging for four years came in. Now, the prosecutors advanced a plausible theory they believed would prove the president was unfit: that, at the behest of Mr. Clinton, Vernon Jordan was arranging jobs for silence in both the Whitewater and Jones cases.

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