Watergate as a History Lesson


Unstated though it may be, one aim of the Senate Banking Committee's Whitewater inquiries this week has been to discover if there was a Watergate-style coverup of evidence in Vince Foster's office pointing to some sort of wrongdoing on the part of President and Mrs. Clinton. Mr. Foster was an old Arkansas friend who became deputy White House counsel and, in July, 1993, killed himself.

For reasons not completely clear to us, he was working on personal legal matters of the Clintons at the time. (He was counsel to the president, not the Clintons.) His immediate superior, White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum, took charge the security of Mr. Foster's office after the suicide. He rebuffed efforts of law enforcement officials to search it -- over the objections of then Deputy Attorney General Philip Heymann.

Though Mr. Foster's files were later turned over to proper authorities, for a certain period of time they were not in the custody of investigators, but, apparently, of the Clintons. Mr. Nussbaum told senators "the transferring of personal files had absolutely nothing to do with what has become the Whitewater matter." However, no one inventoried what was in the files before they left the Foster office. Therefore, as Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., both pointed out, not the police, Congress or the independent counsel investigating Whitewater knows if everything that was in Mr. Foster's files when they left his office was still in them when made available to law enforcement officials.

Senator Shelby brought Watergate in by asking Mr. Nussbaum, now in private practice, to recall his career in the 1970s. "I was senior associate special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee impeachment inquiry." Senator Shelby said, "So you had the. . . unique experience on Watergate."

That unique experience should have taught Mr. Nussbaum that the White House is a bad place to appear to be hiding something. That looks like a cover-up, even when it is not, and even when what is being protected is neither criminal nor important. Cover-ups are dangerous. It was the cover-up aspect of Watergate that brought Richard Nixon down, not the break-in at the Watergate complex. Mr. Heymann remembered that even if Mr. Nussbaum did not. "Bernie, are you hiding something?" he asked him when Justice aides and police officers were denied their normal role in the investigation of the suicide.

Nothing so far justifies calling Whitewater "Whitewatergate." Nothing to come may, either. But the handling of the Foster files after his suicide and the unconvincing testimony of Mr. Nussbaum and other White House aides this week doesn't sit well with those whose memory of "the unique Watergate experience" is still clear.

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