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Nixon, Clinton and Common Sense

By Mary McGrory
Sunday, February 1, 1998; Page C01

opinion
That was sinister; this is sordid. That's the defining difference between Watergate and what is happening now.

There is no comparison on the offenses. Richard Nixon abused the power of his great office and broke the law to save his hide. We don't know what Bill Clinton has done. No formal charges have been made. He has not ventured any facts in his own defense, just general denials. Whatever happened between the 47-year old president and the 21-year old White House intern did not, however, affect the nation, although an attempted cover-up could.

Bob Woodward, who with his partner Carl Bernstein cornered Richard Nixon and wrote two books about Watergate, "All the President's Men" and "The Final Days," thinks that what links the two disparate presidents is their failure to "provide common sense explanations of curious occurrences, like the Watergate break-in and Monica Lewinsky's frequent visits to the White House after she left her job."

What's very different, of course, is the pace. The Watergate affair began with the burglary on June 17, 1972, and lasted until the resignation of Richard Nixon on August 8, 1974. During that 26-month interval, weeks would go by without a single development. Allegations about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky first appeared in the Washington Post on Wednesday, January 21. The following Sunday, the talk shows were interviewing Rep. Henry Hyde because, as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, he would be in charge of handling any impeachment proceedings.

The rush was due, in part, to the fact that the Clinton case came with tapes enclosed. The existence of Richard Nixon's lethal tapes was not discovered until 13 months into the story, and then Nixon fiercely fought off disclosure. Torrents of leaks have expedited the Clinton matter.

It is easy to tick off the ways in which the imbroglios are as different as the two presidents. Richard Nixon was a stooped, paranoid introvert whose choice of politics as a career was the most mysterious thing about him. Clinton is strapping, gregarious, wandering-eyed, and he inhales crowds. The two share an acute sense of grievance, perhaps a legacy of their unhappy childhoods. Nixon made lists of enemies, Clinton of campaign donors. Clinton has a high school sophomore's reluctance to own up and an insistence on having things both ways. One of the tapes printed in Newsweek hints at a Clintonian theory about sex that is not sex and certainly not adultery.

And that brings us to the major difference between the two sagas as spectacles. In the Nixon fall, all the characters were men. In Clinton's crisis, they are all women. His principal nemesis is Linda Tripp, an ex-White House employee with the malice of Iago. The clueless Clinton staff not only kept this Bush holdover, but put her in the legal counsel's office, where her capacity for eavesdropping and lurking could do them the most damage. By her account she was there when Kathleen Willey, desperately seeking a permanent White House job, emerged from the Oval Office looking disheveled but radiant.

And who else but Tripp recorded 20 hours of telephone confidences from Lewinsky without telling her? Tripp did it because her gaudy friend Lucianne Goldberg, a New York book agent, told her she had to to "protect" herself from the president's attorney (in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case), who got mad when Linda Tripp blabbed the Willey story.

The so-called independent counsel, Kenneth Starr, wired Tripp up and sent her to quiz Lewinsky further. Can anyone, by the way, imagine decorous, meticulous Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, doing that? At one Pentagon City meeting, Tripp was accompanied by Starr attorneys and FBI agents. Later, came the most unbelievable scene so far, that of Lewinsky and her inquisitors killing time at the mall, eating, shopping, strolling. They were waiting for her mom to come from New York -- by train. Nothing like that came out of Watergate.

If this mess ever gets on stage -- say as a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta noir -- the episode provides the perfect opportunity for a male chorus, with coloratura obligato from Monica Lewinsky.

She is apparently not singing for Starr. Her character has undergone a sharp change in the past week. Was she victim or wanton? An account of a five-year-long affair with her high-school drama teacher has raised serious questions as to who was the White House predator. When the teacher broke off the affair -- his wife found out -- he said it was "a bad period for my wife and I."

Clinton, like Nixon before him, is receiving much sympathy. Nixon had a Mideast crisis on his hands, just like Clinton. People urged the press to stop hounding him and let him get on with his job. In the end, though, as Woodward says, the country's questions can only be satisfied with "common sense explanations."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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