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.
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.
The Clinton scandals ought to cause the nice people to rethink. The scandals have exposed Clinton's supporters in Congress and the country as willing to condone law-breaking in some ways more blatant than Nixon's: Nixon at least never personally perjured himself before a grand jury. And they have called into question the morality not just of a single man but of an entire administration: While two of Nixon's cabinet officers (attorney general John Mitchell; commerce secretary Maurice Stans) were convicted of crimes, five of Clinton's officers are now under the shadow of the law. Former agriculture secretary Mike Espy has been convicted of taking bribes. Former HUD secretary Henry Cisneros has been indicted and will be tried in November for lying to the FBI in an effort to conceal blackmail payments to a former mistress that were considerably larger than one would have thought him able to afford on a politician's legal earnings. Former commerce secretary Ron Brown escaped investigation only because of his accidental death. Both labor secretary Alexis Herman and interior secretary Bruce Babbitt are being probed by independent counsels.
But it is going to take more than allegations to make the nice people rethink. One of the great lessons of the Clinton scandals is the brute power of fact. Washington insiders, privy to all the details that proximity to power brings, have presumed Clinton guilty of lying under oath since January and have condemned him for it. But it's only since August -- when Clinton moved from being a presumed liar to a confessed one -- that the nation's disgust for the man has begun to catch up to the capital's. For those who had followed the Lewinsky matter closely, Clinton's admission changed nothing; for everybody else, it changed everything.
The same will be true of the terms of Clinton's eventual punishment. It is not because Nixon was indelibly disgraced that he was forced to resign; it is because he was forced to resign that he is indelibly disgraced. If Clinton holds on to office, the public will very reasonably infer that the evidence was not there that would justify removing him. An administration that ought to be discredited as corrupt will instead slide into the history books as "controversial." Censure, censure plus a fine -- neither of these will mean anything.
In fact, given Clinton's amazing ability to "accept responsibility" in one breath and claim innocence in the next, any punishment less than impeachment will be seized on by him as both an escape and carte blanche to continue lying, stonewalling, and obstructing justice in the two years remaining to him as president.
This is a political as well as a legal danger. For not until Clinton has been disgraced will his party be discredited for nominating and defending him. If there are any Republicans who imagine that they can eke out a greater political advantage by letting the Clinton scandals dribble on without a resolution than by proving perjury and obstruction in the Senate, they are deluding themselves. Clinton said early on that there could be only one survivor of the struggle between him and Ken Starr, and he was right. If the case against Clinton is somehow not borne out, the sleaze of the past eight months will unfairly but ineluctably splash back on those who have accused him.
The appetites that led Clinton into perjury and obstruction are so ludicrous and so pathetic that it is hard for Americans to see the perjury and obstruction as criminal. But crimes are crimes, whether the person responsible for them is in the end a sinister figure or a sad one. And in a republic of laws, crimes must be punished. The alternative is to blur forever the force of law and to leave Clinton's example intact as a permanent temptation to future presidents.
David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.