IN THE FIRST HOURS AND DAYS of the burgeoning Monica Lewinsky scandal, reporters naturally wanted to find out whether the president had personally urged the onetime White House intern to lie under oath, or if he himself had lied in the deposition taken by Paula Jones's lawyers. But in their relentless focus on perjury -- one of the hardest crimes to prove -- the White House press corps neglected the key legal lesson of Watergate: You do not need to commit perjury yourself to be guilty of obstruction of justice. Nixon never did.
Instead, as Rep. Lawrence Hogan of Maryland said when he stepped forward as the first Republican member of the House Judiciary Committee to announce his intention to vote for impeachment in 1974, Nixon "lied repeatedly, deceiving public officials and the American people. He has withheld information necessary for our system of justice to work. Instead of cooperating with prosecutors and investigators, as he said publicly, he concealed and covered up evidence, and coached witnesses so that their testimony would show things that really were not true. He tried to use the CIA to impede the investigation of Watergate by the FBI. He approved the payment of what he knew to be blackmail to buy the silence of an important Watergate witness. [He] praised and rewarded those who he knew had committed perjury. He personally helped to orchestrate a scenario of events, facts and testimony to cover up wrongdoing in the Watergate scandal and to throw investigators and prosecutors off the track. He actively participated in an extended and extensive conspiracy to obstruct justice."
In May 1973, a "highly placed source" told the Washington Post, " Watergate was a natural action that grew from existing circumstances. It grew out of an atmosphere. The way of life was not new. There have been fairly broad [illegal and quasi-legal] activities from the beginning of the Administration. I didn't know when national security ended and political espionage started." From lax ethics, to near-criminality, to conspiracy, to outright lawbreaking was a natural evolution a quarter-century ago; it remains a natural evolution now. Where there is one act of wrongdoing, there are usually others.
It takes only a little crack to tear open a big dam. The dam here is the vast reservoir of Clinton-administration wrongdoing. And one thing that the Clintonites should remember is that, when the dam bursts, all sorts of once- innocent people who came to Washington intending to do no more than help a president they believed in, but who imperceptibly slid into abetting his illegalities, can get hurt. Those idealistic Republicans, many of them surprisingly young, who decided to tough things out for Nixon suffered badly for it. A total of 19 Nixon aides went to jail, and many others faced disbarment and other ethical proceedings. The Clinton scandals -- campaign finance, Filegate, Whitewater -- are collectively far more pervasive and variegated even than Watergate itself. Which means that there may be many, many more than two dozen people who will find themselves in trouble, unless they step forward soon to clear themselves.
Monica Lewinsky is not the John Dean of the Clinton administration -- she knows too little. She is instead the James McCord, the Watergate burglar who, after hanging tough, eventually decided to talk. But there must exist many potential John Deans, who are right now weighing the odds of prison against their feelings of loyalty to their president. Everyone involved in manipulating the testimony of any witness or potential witness in the Paula Jones lawsuit has placed himself on the wrong side of the law.
Those campaign aides charged with preventing "bimbo eruptions" in 1992, for instance -- that's fine in the context of a campaign. But similar actions intended to deter women from coming forward to offer evidence that would corroborate Paula Jones's story would make one vulnerable to charges of witness-tampering. Similarly, if the Clinton-administration officials and staffers who sought employment for Monica Lewinsky knew why it was so important to keep her happy, they are courting subornment of perjury and obstruction of justice charges. The author or authors of the memo that advised West Wing witnesses to alter their accounts of the groping of Kathleen Willey -- he or they are vulnerable too.
And it doesn't halt there. Clinton's sex life is far from this administration's only scandal. What about the vanished witnesses in the campaign-finance investigations? Did anyone advise them that it would be wise to flee? Missing documents, billing records that turned up late or not at all -- did anyone hide them from investigators? Those acts, too, potentially constitute obstruction of justice.
Nor is it only the president and his political aides who are exposed to the wrath of the law. The code of professional conduct forbids lawyers to represent a client whom they know to be planning to perjure himself. The representation Bob Bennett and others have given this administration has been vigorous, to put it mildly. Has any of them ever straggled over the line into actual knowledge of presidential lying? Has any advised anyone to shape testimony in ways that constitute perjury? If so, then such a person faces disbarment at a minimum.
Theoretically, of course, anyone with guilty knowledge should confess it out of pure public-spiritedness. Alas, White Houses seldom work that way. John Dean broke ranks in the end because he figured out that, though his president accepted loyalty, he did not return it; that he would cheerfully consign Dean or anyone else to jail in order to clear himself. Surely there must be some Clintonite brainy enough to figure out -- if only on the basis of the stories of the president's sexual proclivities -- that you cannot expect reciprocity from Bill Clinton.
Last week was the week that the Washington press corps decided it was sick of being used. But journalists who permit themselves to be used suffer nothing worse than professional embarrassment. What we are waiting for now, as the federal bloodhounds close in, is the moment when one or more of Clinton's aides, protectors, or henchmen decide that they, too, are sick of being used; that they will no longer shut down their consciences for the sake of a man who values his own presidency so little that he would risk it for a fleeting, illicit pleasure. What we are wondering, as we wait, is how many of his aides, how many Democratic office-holders Clinton will take with him if he falls. And what those people now on the verge of tumbling with Clinton ought to ask themselves is: Is this man really worth it?
David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.