The Magazine

BILL MILHOUS CLINTON

Mar 24, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 27 • By DAVID FRUM
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SOMEWHERE, RICHARD NIXON'S SHADE is watching with admiration the performance of the Clinton White House. If only he'd run Watergate like this! Then he could have claimed that the break-in proved the need for tougher federal anti-burglary laws.


But while Nixon could have learned a great deal from Bill Clinton, Clinton could also learn a few lessons from the master of political chicanery. Perhaps the first lady could summon one of her psychic friends to bring the two scandal-plagued presidents together for a seance, because the president seems to be committing the same serious error that ultimately brought Nixon down.


Unnamed sources near the president told R. W. Apple of the New York Times, who reported their views in a gossipy backgrounder, that all of the commotion around the fund-raising scandal is an inside-the-Beltway tempest: Their polls show that the public at large doesn't really care. The trouble is, there's nothing so inside-the-Beltway as denying that scandals matter beyond- the-Beltway. No, the fund-raising scandals have not yet moved public opinion much. But President Nixon could tell you that public opinion is no bulwark for a politician caught violating the law.


The Watergate scandal began to gather momentum in the early spring of 1973. John Dean told his story to the Watergate special prosecutor in March, and Haldeman and Ehrlichman were forced to resign in April. As late as May, however, Gallup found that Nixon's approval rating remained in the 45 percent vicinity -- roughly where President Clinton's stood through most of his first term.


Dean testified before the Senate in June, and in August the public learned of the president's secret tapes. But a September 1973 poll found that 50 percent of Americans still believed that Watergate was getting more attention than it deserved. On October 20, Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox, prompting the resignation of attorney general Elliot Richardson and an assistant attorney general. By then, three out of four Americans believed Nixon was guilty in the Watergate scandal. By a 54-37 percent margin, however, they still opposed removing him from office.


As late as January 1974, shortly after Nixon confessed to having known of payoffs to the Watergate burglars and having originally lied about it, more Americans opposed his removal from office than favored it. In fact, not until May of 1974 -- 13 months after the first credible reports of presidential lawbreaking, by which time a previous Nixon attorney general had pled guilty and virtually the entire senior White House staff had been indicted -- did more Americans favor removing Nixon from office than keeping him at his job.


The point? The public takes its cues on Washington scandals from the people it employs to pay close attention to affairs in Washington: the press, Congress, the Justice Department. When Washington collectively decides that serious lawbreaking has occurred, public opinion will follow. Public opinion is a lagging indicator: If the opposition is the prosecution and the press is the judge, the public is the jury. But once the press has decided that the president has committed a serious wrong -- as the Washington press seems, grudgingly and unhappily, finally to be deciding about Bill Clinton -- the public comes to believe it too.


The Watergate analogy holds only so far, of course. In Watergate, everybody knew what the crime was -- breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters to wiretap the phones -- but the degree of presidential responsibility remained unclear until the end. In the fund-raising story, the degree of presidential responsibility is clear -- Clinton was in it up to his eyebrows -- but the precise nature of the lawbreaking has not yet been fully revealed.


In Watergate, the underlying crime involved the violation of laws that everyone is familiar with: laws against burglary and illegal eavesdropping. As far as we yet know, the laws broken by the Democrats in their fund-raising campaign are complicated statutory and regulatory regimes.


There may be one other important difference as well: Republicans would be unwise to count on the Clinton scandals alone to deliver them future political victories like those won by the Democrats in 1974 and 1976. Watergate wasn't the only thing the Democrats had going for them in 1974 and 1976: Inflation was raging at 13 percent, the country was mired in the worst recession since 1940, motorists were queuing up for gasoline, and the country had just lost 58,000 soldiers in an unsuccessful war. What would have been Watergate's effect if the country had been peaceful and prosperous?