The Magazine


Sep 28, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 03 • By DAVID FRUM
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Weirdly enough, the very grossness of President Clinton's misconduct has proven to be his best defense. The details of Kenneth Starr's report to Congress are so lurid that it's hard at first to see past them (this is almost certainly the first government document in history whose readers have flipped past the executive summary to get to the footnotes). And by apologizing again and again for an "inappropriate" relationship with Monica Lewinsky, the president helps to keep attention focused on the mesmerizing smuttiness of his affair. That way, attention is diverted from the president's hanging offense -- his unrepentant lying under oath.

What the Clinton team most wants to go unnoticed are the parallels between the Clinton scandals of the 1990s and the Nixon scandals of the 1970s. But that parallelism is so glaring that Clinton defenders can no longer avoid acknowledging it, if only for the purpose of denying it: Look Chris/Geraldo/Keith, goes their refrain, however appalling the president's behavior -- and I'm not defending it! -- it in no way resembles Watergate. Indeed,It's not Watergate is now Team Clinton's favorite talking point, replacing She's a cheap tramp from a trailer park; He invited them to stay in the Lincoln Bedroom because they were his friends; and She was fantasizing. Like those earlier talking points, this one will soon become inoperative.

What was Watergate about? At bottom, it was an attempt by a president to conceal his wrongdoing by corrupting the institutions of government. And what is the Lewinsky affair about? The very same thing. Yes of course the details of the two scandals vary: Details always do. Yes, too, the tone and style of the two scandals, and of the two presidents, could not differ more. Watergate was grand opera; Lewinsky is Oh! Calcutta! But from the point of view of the law and the Constitution, the Lewinsky scandal is almost eerily like Watergate. All unhappy coverups, it turns out, are alike.

In both cases, the president suborned perjury: Nixon from the Watergate burglars, Clinton from Monica Lewinsky. In both cases, the president eventually found himself blackmailed by those he had suborned: James McCord and the Watergate burglars wanted cash; Monica demanded a fancy job in New York (not as somebody's administrative assistant). In both cases, the president tampered with witnesses. Nixon tried to coax John Dean into lying; Clinton coached Betty Currie.

Even more striking, in both cases, perjury often manifested itself in the form of too-convenient amnesia: President Clinton swore that he could not remember ever being alone with Monica except when she delivered pizza to him; Nixon aide Dwight Chapin went to prison for six months for his failure to recall Donald Segretti's 1972 dirty-tricks campaign. Chapin's fate was sealed by Charles F.C. Ruff, now President Clinton's White House counsel and then a Watergate special prosecutor, who persuaded the Supreme Court not to hear an appeal. Chapin's defense, like Clinton's today, was that he provided the grand jury with legally accurate answers to ambiguous questions.

In the Lewinsky scandal as in Watergate, the president's subordinates illegally leaked private information about perceived enemies. It was for having Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatric records stolen and then disseminated that Charles Colson went to prison; we are still waiting to see what will happen to the Clinton Defense Department officials who leaked to the New Yorker information from Linda Tripp's confidential Pentagon personnel records.

Then as now, the president baffled his subordinates by stonewalling when it seemed that a swift confession and apology might still have saved him. Nixon stonewalled because he knew that full disclosure of his role in the Watergate burglary would lead to the exposure of even more glaring illegalities: the wiretapping of journalists and mistrusted staffers, the illegal campaign donations, the Ellsberg break-in. Clinton stonewalled for reasons we can still only surmise.

Then as now, the president and his men insisted that their troubles had nothing to do with their own actions and were entirely the work of malicious, out-of-control prosecutors. As the Nixon White House complained in June 1973, suggestions in the press that the president knew of the coverup

appear to be part of a careful coordinated strategy by an individual or individuals determined to prosecute a case against the President in the press using innuendo, distortions of fact and outright falsehood. This manipulation of the press involves an unprecedented assault on judicial and administrative due process. Its objective, stated in the simplest terms, is to destroy the President.