IN THE INTERESTS of clear thinking and sound history, we would urge a moratorium on the easy, off-hand labeling of any new public scandal that comes along as "another Watergate." Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) was playing with that kind of fire last week when he said earnestly that he hopes the Korean influence-buying affair does not become "the Democrats' Watergate" and urged the President to name a special prosecutor to pursue the inquiry.
Sen. Baker did not suggest - and neither has anyone else - that the Korean case contains anything like the unique agglomeration of offenses in high offices that the term "Watergate" encompasses.Nor did Mr. Baker and his House counterpart, John J. Rhodes (R-Ariz.), offer any specific evidence that the Justice Department is being less than tough and purposeful in probing allegations that involve, among others, a number of House Democrats. If Sen. Baker really believes that there is a "Democratic Watergate" in what is now known about the Korean case, he did not profit much from those long days he spent as a voluble and conspicuous member of the Senate committee that conducted the Watergate investigation four years ago.
Admittedly, at this point it is hard to gauge how the Justice Department and the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct are proceeding with the murky, intricate Korean affair. That's frustrating but inevitable. If an investigation is being run with proper care and confidentiality, the press, the public or even a Senate Minority Leader is not likely to know many details before the results emerge.
There are signs, however, that the House committee is picking up its pace, partly in response to prodding by its junior Republican member, New York Rep. Bruce F. Caputo, and other impatient representatives. The panel is asking current and former House members to disclose voluntarily all gifts from or social and financial dealings with representatives of the Republic of Korea and certain Korean nationals. The committee is also trying to conclude an agreement with the executive branch about the handling of sensitive intelligence documents, and is reportedly preparing to question several former national security officials about their knowledge, if any, of Korean efforts to influence American policy.
Such efforts should be encouraged, not denigrated by vague suggestions that the whole inquiry is an elaborate sham. Sen. Baker set forth a curious standard, moreover, by saying that "fairness and equity" require the Democrats to handle the Korean case as well as the Republicans handled Watergate. We'd put it differently: We hope the Democrats will do much better, with less obstruction and stalling and much less willingness to let prominent party leaders get off scot-free. After all, partisan "fairness and equity" are not really the issue here. What is being tested is the capacity of both parties and two branches of government to deal effectively with a very sensitive and unsettling matter. Partisan game-playing with easy catch-phrases and false analogies will not help anybody understand the scandal immediately at hand - or the one called Watergate that plunged the country into a constitutional crisis a few years ago.