The Magazine

YES, IT IS LIKE WATERGATE

Sep 28, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 03 • By DAVID FRUM
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And then as now, in the last resort both presidents looked the nation in the eye and flat-out lied -- Nixon unctuously, Clinton brazenly.


But the Starr report reveals an even more disturbing parallel: the abuse of the federal government's intelligence and security agencies. Section XI-C3 of the Starr report, subtitled "Whatever Just Happened Didn't Happen," tells the following amazing story. On Saturday, December 6, 1997 -- the day after the president learned that Monica Lewinsky had appeared on the list of potential witnesses in the Jones case -- Monica showed up at the northwestern gate of the White House at 10 in the morning with a parcel of gifts for the president. She had been told that the president would be meeting with his lawyers and that she should leave the gifts with Betty Currie. But Currie could not immediately be found. As Lewinsky cooled her heels at the gatehouse, a guard let slip that the president was in fact meeting with another woman. "Livid," the report says, Lewinsky stormed off and telephoned and "berated" Currie. Two hours later, she was called back to the White House for her first meeting with the president in two months. He was, she happily e-mailed a friend, unusually affectionate with her. And he promised to prod Vernon Jordan to find her a job.


While the president was mollifying Monica, Betty Currie was warning the gatehouse guards that the president was so angry about their blabbing that he wanted somebody fired. The president himself called the watch commander into the Oval Office for a dressing down -- and then demanded the guards keep their mouths shut about the morning's event. The watch commander returned to the gatehouse and ordered that no record of the incident be kept.


The events are so richly absurd -- one woman in the president's office, another woman banging at the door; the president smilingly calming the angry woman and then chewing out his big-mouthed guards as soon as he has shooed her out the door -- that it's possible to lose sight of their real meaning. After months of being nothing more than an irritating nuisance, Monica had suddenly became a potential danger. If Monica testified truthfully in the Paula Jones suit, it would strengthen Jones's case -- and maybe encourage other women to come forward. It was urgently important that Monica be persuaded to perjure herself, and the Secret Service officers' indiscretion had complicated that task. An honest entry in the log book about Monica's appearance, gifts, and temper tantrum would make things even more complicated: It would offer substantial evidence that Monica and the president were lying when they disavowed any sexual relationship between them. So the log had to be doctored. And here the story stops being funny. Just as Richard Nixon urged the CIA to lie to the FBI to shut down the Watergate investigation, so Clinton was urg-ing the Secret Service to engage in deception to shut down the Paula Jones lawsuit. He was, in other words, annexing the Secret Service to his own personal obstruction of justice.


Perhaps the most important political question posed by Watergate was this: For whom do the security forces of the United States work? Are they the president's henchmen, obliged to obey his every command on the theory (as Nixon memorably phrased it) that "When the president does it, that means it is not illegal"? Or do they owe their loyalty to the law and the Constitution? Watergate affirmed that it was the second course that is the correct answer, but President Clinton and his party apparently require a reminder.


Perhaps his party needs it even more than he does. Ever since Watergate, the Democrats have basked in unprecedented moral self-regard. This is actually quite an anomalous situation. Before 1970, it was the Democrats -- the party of the urban machines and the one-party South -- who were usually thought of as the more crooked of the two great parties. It must have taken considerable humbug for Democrats who remembered how Kennedy had won in 1960 (the $ 5-a-vote West Virginia primary win; the ballot stuffing in Chicago) and how Johnson wiretapped his political enemies in 1968 to summon up a great whoop of indignation at the news that the '72 Nixon campaign had rifled the Democratic National Committee's files. But largely thanks to Watergate, since 1972 the Democrats have become the nice-people's party: the party of genteel good-government reformers, earnest schoolteachers, and Episcopalian bishops.