THE PARTISAN drive in the House Judiciary Committee to inquire into possible impeachment of President Clinton is billed by some as payback for Watergate.
So it is, in a partisan sense. But this inquiry is no Watergate.
Crimes against President Nixon's critics and election opponents were behind Watergate. It dealt with presidential corruption of federal agencies to achieve that purpose. Conduct involved undermined the Constitution -- what its framers meant by "high crimes and misdemeanors."
Those are, in the words of Alexander Hamilton, "injuries done immediately to the society itself."
When President Richard Nixon saw, in 1974, that a bipartisan majority of the House of Representatives would vote to impeach him for such conduct, he resigned from office.
In the current travesty, independent counsel Kenneth Starr investigated Whitewater, Filegate, Travelgate and the death of White House aide Vincent Foster without finding evidence against President Clinton of possible grounds for impeachment to refer to the House.
He delivered, instead, a salacious stew about a sex scandal and immoral behavior, going where no investigator had gone before with past presidents.
His charges, if true, may be roundly condemned by most Americans, but they do not come close to constitutional high crimes and misdemeanors.
Now that members of the House Judiciary Committee are proposing the third presidential impeachment inquiry in this nation's history, they owe the people the panel's definition of high crimes and misdemeanors.
Congress also has a responsibility to the electorate to carry out its own constitutional responsibilities during this crisis. It has failed to approve campaign finance reform. It is behind on the budget.
Caught up in the excitement of Monicagate, the House of Representatives is not doing its job half so conscientiously as the beleaguered Mr. Clinton appears to be doing his.
If there is to be an inquiry, three aspects of Mr. Starr's work cry out for investigation:
First is the compensation Mr. Starr received in the private practice of law while serving in his federal office as independent counsel. Who paid? At what rate? For what services? The appearance of Mr. Starr's profiting from doing-in the president must be examined.
Second is the seeming collusion between Mr. Starr's office and lawyers suing Mr. Clinton on behalf of Paula Corbin Jones,
creating a strong element of entrapment. This bears on the integrity of Mr. Starr's office of independent counsel, which was created to do away with the appearance of any conflict of interest in the Justice Department.
Third is the funny business of videotaping Mr. Clinton's grand jury testimony, to be shown to the public in mockery of grand jury secrecy. The official excuse was a grand juror's alleged sickness. Who was the juror? What was the sickness? Was it induced by a prosecutor? Congress should find out.
The investigation of Watergate was approached in 1974 with solemnity of purpose that overcame partisanship. No such high-mindedness is on view today.
Gerald R. Ford, the Republican who became president as a result of Watergate and whose conduct safeguarded the country's most precious institutions in their darkest hour, offers his solution to the current trauma on the page opposite.
Mr. Ford appreciates the nation's desperate need for dignity. Members of Congress need to learn from him.
Pub date 10/06/98