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Specter of Watergate haunting current proceedings More differences exist than similarities with '74; THE IMPEACHMENT HEARINGS


WASHINGTON -- For the second time in 24 years, the House Judiciary Committee stands poised to vote one or more articles of impeachment against a sitting president. Memories of the first experience haunt the second.

Then as now, a Congress controlled by one party was seeking the ouster of a twice-elected president of the opposition party. Then as now, the president seemed to be his own worst enemy.

But President Clinton's defenders in the past few days have repeatedly taken America back to that bleak period in 1974 -- when three impeachment articles were voted against President Richard M. Nixon -- to argue that Clinton should not suffer the same fate.

Much of their case has been that the Monica Lewinsky sex-and-lies scandal is no Watergate, the comprehensive tale of attempted political burglary and assorted other crimes and a sustained White House cover-up that finally brought Nixon down.

The contrast between the two affairs is irrefutable, and it is also true that the sharply partisan climate in which the current impeachment inquiry has gone forward is far removed from the somber tone that prevailed at the time of Nixon's ordeal.

Just as Clinton does, the embattled Republican president had ++ his staunch defenders up to the time the three articles were voted -- charging obstruction of justice, abuse of power and defiance of committee subpoenas. But there was a much more bipartisan atmosphere on the committee -- and in the Congress -- in seeking resolution of the Nixon case.

One obvious reason for the difference was that there was little dispute by this juncture in the Watergate process that the allegations against Nixon rose to the level of impeachable offenses and related directly to the conduct of his official duties.

Another reason was that the Nixon investigation was conducted by special prosecutors, Archibald Cox and then Leon Jaworski, who had the public's confidence -- in contrast to the public disapproval of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.

Still another reason was the fact that Nixon's denials were blown out of the water only days before the articles of impeachment were voted, with the Supreme Court's unanimous decision requiring release of the White House tapes of his conversations regarding Watergate. Nixon was then obliged to acknowledge that six days after the break-in, he ordered the CIA to tell the FBI to drop its investigation of the break-in on the ruse that it was imperiling work of the CIA.

The tape of this conversation with his White House chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, was the famous "smoking gun" that persuaded most of Nixon's Republican defenders that the jig was up. Disclosure of this series of events, bursting on the public awareness at the time, created an electric atmosphere in Washington and the country as Americans sat glued to their television sets.

As the House Judiciary Committee voted on its proposed articles of impeachment, it was clear that Nixon was unavoidably on track toward removal from office.

The committee voted the first of the articles, alleging obstruction of justice in the Watergate cover-up, 27-11, with six Republicans voting with the majority. It voted the second -- alleging abuse of the FBI, Internal Revenue Service, CIA and Justice Department -- by 28-10, with seven Republicans joining. The third, charging willful disobeying of committee subpoenas, was voted 21-17, on party lines.

There was little expectation or hope among Nixon's defenders on the committee and in Congress that if the articles went to the Senate, he would somehow escape a guilty verdict and forcible exile. For that reason, three of the most respected Republican members of Congress -- Sens. Barry M. Goldwater of Arizona and Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, and Rep. John Rhodes of Arizona -- went to Nixon and informed him that he no longer had enough support to avert that debacle.

It was then that Nixon went on television and announced he would resign. The decision resulted in a national sense of relief, enunciated by the new president, Gerald R. Ford, when he proclaimed that "our long national nightmare is over."

Today, the public atmosphere is pointedly different. Opinion polls are unanimous in reporting that Americans are not reserving judgment, as they did for a long time in the Nixon case, but rather have overwhelmingly concluded that they don't want Clinton impeached and removed from office.

Nor is there a "smoking gun," as there was in the Nixon case.

The closest thing has been Lewinsky's infamous DNA-tested blue dress, which for all its sensationalism did not settle whether high crimes and misdemeanors had been committed.

Furthermore, the political reality about the sentiment in the Senate is much different from what it was 24 years ago. In the Nixon case, Goldwater and Scott told the president there were fewer than 20 votes supporting him, with 34 needed to avoid conviction. In the present situation, there are 45 members of Clinton's party in the Senate and evident solidarity among them that censure would be sufficient.

In all this, Nixon at this juncture in his ordeal stood on the precipice of political destruction. He knew it, and so did the American people. Members of the House Judiciary Committee and of the House knew that the actions they were taking or contemplating would have grave and historic ramifications.

When the matter was over, Nixon was in exile, Ford was in the Oval Office and the judgment of a leading Republican member of the Senate Watergate investigating committee, Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee, was the prevailing one: that the political process worked, proving the resilience of the system.

Today, there is a sense of unreality about a process whereby the House contemplates articles of impeachment based on allegations of sleazy behavior that do not relate to the president's conduct of official duties, knowing that in the end the Senate is almost certain to reject articles.

Nearly a quarter-century ago, Nixon at this point was a cornered man hunkering down in his White House bunker as the nation anticipated his removal from office. Clinton, by contrast, has continued to function very publicly and effectively in the performance of his official and political duties.

Three veterans of the House Judiciary Committee who voted the three articles of impeachment against Nixon argued this week that those articles were accepted by the public because they were voted on a bipartisan basis. Articles against Clinton voted on a strictly partisan basis, they warned, would create a public uproar.

That remains to be seen and probably depends on whether the matter is pursued in a Senate trial, which Nixon's resignation averted.

Pub Date: 12/11/98

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