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A Handle On Scandal

"Watergate initially was not a scandal," says Dean, now a full-time writer, when reached at his office in Beverly Hills. "When the break-in occurred" in June 1972, "other than The Post, everyone in the media ignored it. Try as he would, George McGovern couldn't get anyone to pay attention to the problem. It didn't become a scandal until the spring of '73, when the cover-up falls apart of its own weight, then everyone jumps on it and it becomes a scandal. And then it's a scandal right through Ford's pardon."

Asked if the current issue is a scandal, Dean says, "It's close." He also thinks it could lead to impeachment.

President Bush delivers the State of the Union address, and the Sixteen Words that may or may not constitute a scandal. (Jonathan Newton - The Washington Post)

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"It's quite clear that the evidence was stacked," Dean says. "I think it could be an impeachable offense if it shows deliberate misrepresentation on an issue he took the country to war on. If that isn't an impeachable offense, I don't know what is."

The story has shown durability in the mainstream media, without yet toggling over into the kind of feeding frenzy caused by a true scandal. One hint that it's not yet a scandal is the lack of a proper name. "Iraqgate" is hard to say and a bit vague. An Internet search reveals references to "Weaponsgate" (too bland), "Sixteen Wordsgate" (tortured) and "Nigergate" (unspeakable, especially since some people aren't sure how to pronounce "Niger"). The Web site of presidential candidate Bob Graham refers to the "State of the Union scandal." Former White House aide Sidney Blumenthal, a battle-hardened veteran of the Clinton "pseudo-scandals," as he calls them, suggests "Intelligate," in homage to the misuse of intelligence.

The "gate" suffix has been overused for three decades (Koreagate, Travelgate, etc.) and invariably invites unfavorable comparison with the gold standard of scandals. The most plausible name might simply be "WMD," in homage to the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that appear to be protected by a cloak of invisibility. The discovery of such weapons would instantly render moot the entire matter. Until then, Begala can claim that WMD stands for Whoppers of Mass Dimensions.

Scandals require code words, terms that no one ever used before but suddenly are all over LexisNexis: enemies list, dirty tricks, White House plumbers, cancer on the presidency, Deep Throat, arms for hostages, stained blue dress, etc. So far this one has produced only "yellowcake uranium" and "aluminum tubes," which don't exactly get the pulse racing.

The current issue has yet to generate a truly classic statement along the lines of "I am not a crook," or "It depends upon what the meaning of the word 'is' is." The clip of the president uttering the 16 words does not quite rival the famous finger-wagging moment when Bill Clinton denied having "sexual relations" with "that woman."

Clinton in the headlines. ()
And speaking of which, the current matter lacks sex, which, although not an absolute requirement for a scandal (Watergate had none, and Nixon was mocked by critics for his sexlessness), is certain to incite heavy panting on the cable TV talk shows. The WMD case is a babe-free zone: There's no one to follow in the high heels of Fawn Hall, Donna Rice, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey or Monica Lewinsky. Thus it is likely the talking heads will find a way to change the topic to Kobe.

So far the story doesn't have a mysterious, charismatic figure at the heart of it. There's no Lt. Col. Oliver North, ramrod straight as he takes the oath and then lies to Congress. There's no G. Gordon Liddy, holding his hand over a flame to prove his willpower.

There's nothing in the story as dramatic as a secret arms-for-hostages deal with funds diverted illegally to Nicaraguan rebels. No Democratic office has been burgled. No powerful official has lied about untoward relations with a big-haired intern. A scandal has a hard time getting off the ground when so much of it involves speech-writing and the alleged inadequacy of the vetting process.

Still, the administration has managed to keep the tempest going by changing its story about how the problem came about. The White House initially blamed the CIA for the blunder, before conceding that the CIA had bird-dogged the bad information. An excellent technique for initiating a Washington scandal is to get on the wrong side of the Agency.

In a real scandal, the scandalmongers ask, "What did the president know, and when did he know it?" but that does not easily apply in this case, in part because the administration's opponents cannot imagine the president as a mastermind of anything. Nor does the president hold himself out as a details person. On the finer points of who had what weapon when, the president doesn't sweat the specifics, and his expression and body language conveys the message of Whatever . . .

The story does have one classically scandalous element: a dead body. British arms expert David Kelly, who had been a source for a BBC report that questioned the Blair government's allegations about Iraqi weapons, was found dead last week, an apparent suicide -- a tragedy that incited comparisons to the suicide of Vince Foster, the Clinton family friend and White House lawyer. Foster's death, and the mysterious disappearance of files from his office, led to the appointment of a special prosecutor in the Whitewater case, and thenceforth scandal became institutionalized at the Clinton White House.

The critics of the administration would argue that the WMD case meets a crucial scandal requirement: the possibility of a pattern of abuse of power. They'd argue that the Sixteen Words were but a snippet of a vast catalogue of disinformation.

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