'Didn't anyone learn anything from Watergate?' Twenty-five years after his last crisis, Richard M. Nixon would be on familiar ground

October 04, 1998|By Monica Crowley

Richard M. Nixon often said that there is almost no learning curve in politics. Yet it would have been inconceivable to him that the same grave political mistakes and ethical lapses that led him to the precipice of impeachment and then to resignation could be made by the very people who had condemned him - including Hillary Rodham Clinton, who served as a House Judiciary Committee counsel during the Watergate investigation.

Though Nixon died in 1994, long before Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones became household names across America, he had seen enough of the Whitewater scandal and the Clintons' stonewalling response to it that he was compelled to ask, "Didn't anyone learn anything from Watergate?"

During the last years of his life, Nixon lived painfully with the personal certainty that if he had made one single and timely decision with regard to Watergate, he would have survived the scandal and served out the remainder of his presidency.

As he said to me on July 1, 1991, "There are so many regrets related to Watergate. First of all was the way I handled the entire thing from the beginning. Instead of trying to keep it quiet, since I didn't have anything to do with it, I should have gone straight to the American people and told them what the hell happened and how everyone was going to pay the price - I had the truth on my side then. I should have used that approach on Watergate, while I still didn't know anything."

He paused, emotions of sorrow and contrition washing over his face. "I should have created an atmosphere in the White House where acts like a cover-up were unthinkable," he said. "I didn't, and that was my mistake."

Nixon would have thought that Clinton had made a similar mistake last January, when he denied having a relationship with Lewinsky and allegedly began directing a far-reaching cover-up of it. Instead of stonewalling, if Clinton had made good on his promise to give us "more rather than less, sooner rather than later," he, too, might have averted the crisis threatening his presidency.

Having worked closely with Nixon on a daily basis during the last four years of his life, I believe he would have been incredulous that the tactics that failed to preserve his presidency have worked, at least so far, for Bill Clinton.

Nixon was - and would have remained - riveted by the Clinton scandals, his reactions ranging from disgust to anger, frustration and sadness.

Having been at the center of his own fatal scandal, he would have identified with the sense of panic Clinton must be experiencing, but having been destroyed by it, he also would have believed that the circumstances were ripe for political justice. Having been the only president to resign in the face of impeachment left his antennae for sensing corruption at the highest levels intensely tuned.

On April 13, 1994, nine days before he died and as the investigation of Whitewater began, he said to me, "Clinton and Hillary are guilty of obstruction of justice, maybe more. Period." Even then, Nixon had suspected that the Clinton White House was corrupt, guided solely by the desire to stay in power.

If he were alive today, Nixon would know well that the charges leveled against Clinton and his reactions to the Lewinsky scandal would include personal, moral, political and legal considerations. He would be shocked to discover that Americans would be inclined to tolerate outrageous, misogynistic and sociopathic behavior by the man they trusted to lead the country and the free world.

Nixon would be disgusted that economic prosperity has generated such widespread moral complacency that many people would overlook serious legal and ethical transgressions by the president because of fatter wallets, refinanced houses, and flourishing stock portfolios. He would be disappointed to know that American expectations for national leaders had fallen so low that a majority of Americans would not clamor for the removal of such a damaged character from office. Above all, he would be saddened to see that an ever-escalating cynicism toward government has diluted Americans' capacity for outrage, thirst for justice, and desire for a morally satisfying ending to a bad political episode.

Disappointment

The mixed public reaction to this nine-month spectacle and the president's corrupt handling of it probably would have disappointed Nixon more than anything else. Not only has Clinton shattered the bond of faith and trust between himself and the public necessary for him to govern effectively and credibly, but polls show that a majority of Americans realize that and choose to approve of his job performance anyway.

This would have been a source of profound discomfort for Nixon, who knew that in many ways he had contributed to the spiraling sense of distrust toward government. He would also have to face the reality that comparisons between the Watergate and Lewinsky scandals - and between the two men - will be etched forever in the history books.

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