Nearly 25 years later, Watergate the sequel? Clinton's abuses pale beside Nixon's, though their endings may be same; The Starr Report


WASHINGTON -- Kenneth W. Starr's report laying out grounds for possible impeachment of President Clinton arrived on Capitol Hill only 50 days short of a quarter of a century after the House Judiciary Committee convened its inquiry on President Richard M. Nixon.

The central issue then was an abuse of presidential power in the conduct of Nixon's official duties, not a matter of personal misconduct as in the case against Clinton.

The case against Nixon in 1973-1974 stemmed not only from the illegal break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate complex the year before, but from the subsequent White House cover-up that included paying hush money to the burglars.

A plethora of other abuses by individuals under Nixon's authority and often at his direction was involved, and many of the Nixon aides went to jail.

Narrower misbehavior

The Starr report's allegations describe a much narrower moral misbehavior by a president.

By Starr's reasoning, Clinton committed a different sort of abuse power which, nevertheless, led to the crimes of perjury and obstruction of justice.

Whereas Nixon professed throughout the ordeal of the impeachment inquiry that he was guiltless, Clinton has confessed to the central fact in his case, of having had a relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky that he artfully first described as "not appropriate" but eventually acknowledged was wrong.

Nixon declined to testify before the grand jury that brought indictments against the Watergate burglars or before lengthy public hearings by a Senate committee headed by Democratic Sen. Sam Ervin.

Led to special prosecutor

Those hearings, ironically, concluded with no charges against the president but recommending appointment of a special independent prosecutor to deal with any allegations against a sitting president.

Nixon repeatedly balked at cooperating with the special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox, and eventually had him fired in the famous Saturday Night Massacre that robbed Nixon of much of his remaining public support. Nor did he testify before the House Judiciary Committee considering his impeachment.

Clinton, after a series of failed maneuvers claiming several forms legal privilege, did testify via closed television before the grand jury and thereafter made a televised public statement, but the grudging and counter-attacking nature of it only encouraged Starr to press on.

In the Watergate case of nearly 25 years ago, Nixon's fate was sealed by the disclosure of tapes of Oval Office conversations that ultimately uncovered a "smoking gun" that proved his complicity in the cover-up.

Specifically, they revealed him discussing use of the CIA to dissuade the FBI from investigating more deeply into the Watergate break-in.

Different 'smoking gun'

In the current matter, tapes of the phone conversations between Lewinsky and her then friend Linda Tripp did play a key role, but the closest thing to a "smoking gun" was the presence of semen on Lewinsky's now-famed blue dress. DNA testing proved the semen to be the president's, the Starr report said.

The congressional hearings in the Watergate affair were exercises in extracting the details not only of the break-in but of the cover-up and of the assorted other acts of campaign dirty tricks involved under the Watergate rubric.

In the Lewinsky affair, the basic story came out almost at the start, and Starr went about zealously building the details to rebut Clinton's original flat denials.

In one sense, the task of the House Judiciary Committee that voted three counts of impeachment against Nixon was simpler, because the allegations against him went so clearly to abuse of presidential power in the conduct of the office.

The current committee must decide, beyond the perjury and obstruction charges, whether Clinton's actions, particularly lying about sexual matters that usually are considered private, meet the same test of abuse of power.

Clinton's lawyers, in their immediate rebuttal of Starr's report, argued pointedly that the president's action in lying about his relationship with Lewinsky was, only "a man's efforts to keep an inappropriate relationship private.

"Such a personal failing does not, however, constitute 'treason, bribery and high crimes and misdemeanors' that would justify the impeachment of the president of the United States."

That language, the Clinton lawyers said, "had a fixed meaning to the framers of our Constitution. It meant wrongs committed against our system of government."

The impeachment clause, they argued, "was never designed to allow a political body to force a president from office for a very personal mistake."

Clinton's lawyers in their rebuttal specifically charged that Starr "apparently attempts to evoke images of Watergate by charging that the president has abused the powers of his office.

"This allegation is simply meritless. In the 'Federalist Papers,' Alexander Hamilton described abuse of power as the corrupt use of the office for personal gain or some other improper purpose.

"Former President Nixon's use of the CIA to thwart a major criminal investigation by the FBI of a crime in which he was involved fits squarely within that definition. President Clinton's lawful assertion of privileges in a court of law and the [White House] Counsel's Office conduct of its official duties plainly does not.

"There is no comparison between the claimed abuses of power by President Nixon and the public and lawful assertion of privileges during the OIC [Office of the Independent Counsel] investigation.

"Indeed, comparing this White House with President Nixon's diminishes the historical significance of the unprecedented claims of abuse of power by the Nixon administration and attempts to criminalize the proper exercise of presidential prerogatives."

In a direct slap at Starr reminiscent of Clinton's own attacks on the independent counsel, the presidential lawyers added:

"The specious nature of the OIC's allegations reveal the OIC's true motive: to create a motive where none exists."

It is the basic difference between the clearly criminal Watergate offenses and the Clinton sex-and-lies affair that is likely to be the legal battleground when the more prurient aspects of the current case are put aside and the House committee faces the serious question of impeachment.

Is lying about personal, private acts that do not touch directly on a president's conduct of his official responsibilities grounds to 00 take from him the office bestowed upon him by the nation's voters?

Starr doubtless will argue that Clinton's behavior, like Nixon's before him, must be punished to uphold the sanctity of the law.

"Perjured testimony," he said in his report, "is an obvious and flagrant affront to the basic concepts of judicial proceedings. Effective restraints against this type of egregious offense are therefore imperative the presidency is more than an executive responsibility. It is the inspiring symbol of all that is highest in American purpose and ideals."

It was said often throughout the lengthy Starr investigation that the case before him was no Watergate.

That remains true in important distinctions about the kind of transgressions involved.

But it is not at all certain at this point that the ultimate outcome -- in Nixon's case, resignation from office to avoid certain impeachment -- will not be the same.

Pub Date: 9/12/98

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