Another Watergate?

The assertion that President Clinton may have had an affair with a White House intern and persuaded her to lie about it had not been public for an hour before many observers were uttering sentences containing the word “Watergate.”

At the other extreme, some of Clinton’s defenders assert that the only connections between Watergate and the current matter are that the intern, Monica Lewinsky, has been residing at the Watergate and that Lucianne Goldberg, the literary agent who seems to be the source of some of the allegations, was a spy for the Nixon campaign in 1972.

From a historian’s perspective, the truth appears to lie between these extremes, but closer to the belief that the two scandals are not very much alike.

The similarities are obvious: In both cases there was the possibility that the president was involved in obstruction of justice. Both Nixon and Clinton made public declarations of innocence. Both attempted to divert attention to “more important” matters. Each made the claim that the charges against him were instigated by his political opponents. And there is the fact that a substantial number of Americans feel a visceral hatred for Clinton, much as many did for Nixon.

But the differences appear, at least at this point, to be much greater than these surface similarities. Much of the confusion stems from the unfortunate use of the term “Watergate” to describe the multifaceted wrongdoing of the Nixon administration. The name has left much of the public with the assumption that the Nixon scandal was about a single event, a “third-rate burglary” and the subsequent attempts to cover it up. This erroneous belief makes it easy to think that an alleged attempt to hide a sexual affair may be in the same league.

The fact is that the actions that led President Nixon to resign to avoid being impeached and removed from office went far beyond the break-in and bugging at the Democratic national headquarters at the Watergate complex in 1972.

An abbreviated list of what came to be subsumed under the catch-all name “Watergate” includes burglarizing the office of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the secret Pentagon Papers; sending out a “mugging squad” to attack Ellsberg; using the IRS, the FBI, the CIA and other federal agencies to harass and intimidate political opponents; planning a break-in at the Brookings Institution; forging cable messages intended to implicate President Kennedy in the 1963 assassination of South Vietnamese President Diem; exchanging government favors for campaign contributions; “laundering” money raised through illegal contributions; concluding a series of real estate deals that made Nixon a millionaire while in office; arranging government-funded improvements on Nixon’s private residences; and infiltrating and sabotaging the campaigns of political rivals.

While obstruction of justice can be viewed as an issue in both cases, there is a huge difference between what Nixon was trying to cover up and what Clinton is alleged to be trying to cover up. In Nixon’s case, it was a long series of crimes that threatened the American constitutional system. What Clinton is accused of trying to hide, however sordid, is certainly not a threat to the Constitution. It is probably not even a crime. Perjury and subornation of perjury are, of course, crimes, but if Clinton were ever shown to have committed these offenses, these would be his only crimes. In Nixon’s case, numerous criminal activities of a wholly different and more serious type were involved.

Nixon’s were, unquestionably, the sort of “high crimes” referred to in the Constitution; can the same reasonably be said of the allegations against Clinton?

If all the things of which Clinton has been accused by his opponents — using political power for personal enrichment, misusing FBI files to obtain “dirt” on political opponents, paying off witnesses in exchange for silence, exchanging favors for illegal campaign contributions — were ever shown to be true, the Clinton affair might begin to approach the scope of Watergate. But all of that remains in the realm of speculation. Independent counsel Kenneth Starr has thus far been unable to make any of these charges against Clinton stick.

People in the news media do a disservice to the public’s understanding of history when they link events of vastly different magnitudes. Watergate was much more than “a third-rate burglary.” So far, we have no proof that the latest addition to Starr’s amorphous investigation was even a third-rate sexual affair.

Let’s wait for some real evidence of endemic criminal activity in an administration before we throw around the word “Watergate.”

Robert S. McElvaine, a writer for History News Service, is a professor of history at Millsaps College and the author of "The Great Depression."

February, 1998