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White House Strategy: It's Bad, but It's Not Watergate

Impeachment Hearings

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  • By George Lardner Jr.
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, December 9, 1998; Page A20

    The White House tried to make the point over and over again: It ain't Watergate. President Clinton's sins, deplorable as they are, amount, as one witness put it, to "low crimes" rather than the abuses of power that warranted the articles of impeachment against Richard M. Nixon.

    It was a strategy that appeared to convince no one at yesterday's hearing of the House Judiciary Committee. But the president's defenders had made their decision: The best way to get Clinton off the hook was to replay the Watergate scandal and related crimes, with aging veterans of the 1973-74 investigations in starring roles.

    It amounted to a stark reminder of Nixon's high crimes and misdemeanors. But it also glossed over the partisanship of the 1974 impeachment inquiry and made it sound like an unerringingly fair-minded exercise untainted by backstage disputes, staff misjudgments or leaks to the press.

    The main players in yesterday's drawn-out drama were, as one of them put it, "three ghosts of impeachment past," former Democratic Reps. Elizabeth Holtzman of New York, Robert F. Drinan of Massachusetts and Wayne Owens of Utah.

    All onetime impeachment hawks, they voted more than 24 years ago for three or more articles of impeachment against Nixon. Now it was their task, commissioned by the White House, to argue that Clinton's "reprehensible" conduct in denying a sexual relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky paled in comparison to Nixon's crimes against the state.

    "Think of what presidential abuses we saw then," Holtzman said. "Getting the CIA to stop an FBI investigation [of the Watergate bugging and break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters], getting the IRS to audit political enemies, illegally wiretapping members of the National Security Council and of the press, a special unit in the White House to break into the psychiatrist's office of a political enemy, and on and on."

    By contrast, she argued, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's referral to the House, accusing Clinton of abusing his powers by denying and covering up his relationship with Lewinsky, does not come close to justifying his removal from office. In fact, she contended that Starr "overstepped his jurisdiction" by arguing for impeachment rather submitting a dry, factual "road map" as special prosecutor Leon Jaworski did with the evidence he had compiled against Nixon.

    Republicans on the committee took sharp exception when the witnesses warned, at times ominously, that a vote to send Clinton to trial in the Senate could rebound dangerously against them.

    "A vote to impeach, in this case, would have dire consequences for the nation for years and even decades to come," Drinan said, adding that "almost 70 percent of the nation and virtually every Democrat in the Congress are opposed to impeachment."

    He predicted "an explosion of anger," akin to what occurred when Nixon had the first Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, fired in the Saturday night massacre, a step that triggered the drive for Nixon's impeachment. A vote to impeach Clinton, Drinan suggested at one point, would smack of an act of "vengeance."

    Rep. George W. Gekas (R-Pa.) was indignant. "Do you seriously believe that any member of this committee or any member of the House . . . will be driven by vengeance?" he asked.

    "I'll leave God to judge that," Drinan, a Jesuit priest who now teaches legal ethics at Georgetown law school, replied.

    "And then maybe God's messengers should not prejudge the God that would make the judgment," Gekas shot back.

    Owens, who said he thought Clinton should be censured, had other words thrown back at him. He and Drinan recently wrote in the New York Times that the 1974 House committee voted not to impeach Nixon for tax fraud, even though there was "persuasive evidence" of it, because the offense "did not involve official conduct or abuse of presidential power." Owens said again yesterday that the evidence against Nixon on this count, involving a tax deduction of hundreds of thousands of dollars based on a backdated donation of his vice presidential papers, was "overwhelming."

    Rep. Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.) wondered if there were another person named Owens on the 1974 committee. Reading from a transcript of the tax debate, Canady quoted Owens as complaining then that the committee had to decide the issue "without having any hard evidence that will sustain tying the president to the fraudulent deed."

    Democrats on the committee appear to be united against any vote to impeach. In 1974, as many as seven Republicans joined the majority in approving the articles against Nixon, articles that had been drafted largely by what was called "a fragile coalition" of six Republicans and three southern Democrats.

    Democrats at yesterday's hearing made much of the fact that President Nixon's lawyer, James St. Clair, was allowed to participate in all of the 1974 hearings and to cross-examine witnesses at closed-door sessions, something this committee has never done.

    The St. Clair precedent, however, was not one that was easily or quickly established. According to several veterans of the 1974 inquiry, the Democratic staff, backed by then-Chairman Peter Rodino (D-N.J.), initially took the position that the proceedings were akin to a grand jury investigation from which the president's lawyers should be excluded.

    The last two White House-designated witnesses, former assistant Watergate prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste and James Hamilton, a former assistant chief counsel of the Senate Watergate committee, condemned Clinton's conduct strenuously. Ben-Veniste said it was "reckless" and "improper," deserving of a firm congressional resolution of disapproval. Hamilton suggested a sharply worded censure "coupled with an agreed-upon fine."

    "The goal should be to end this matter now in a nonpartisan fashion that appropriately sanctions the president and allows the government and the nation to return to the other pressing problems we face," Hamilton said.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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