THE WATERGATE ANALOGY is a bummer, and the sooner people eliminate it from their thinking about the Billy Carter business, the sooner they will stand a chance of sorting out the rights and wrongs of the case. Jimmy Carter is no R. M. Nixon, brother Billy is no plumber and the Civiletti Justice Department isn't John Mitchell's old shop: this attorney general hasn't been sitting around listening to Liddy-type plans to commit crimes of violence.
But people who are trying to keep this thing from bogging down in the misleading Watergate analogy -- one that doesn't do justice to the Watergate crimes and that makes it harder to understand exactly what is amiss in the Billy business -- could surely use a little help from the administration. It was the White House that made an issue out of demonstrating how different its responses were from those of the caught-out Nixon people of 1972 -- and who thus invited the Watergate imagery into the discussion. And then there is the Civiletti performance. It's almost as if the Carter administration's attorney general were asking for unnecessary trouble and comparison with the bad old days.
First, the White House said it had had no "contracts" with the Justice Department about the Billy Carter case. Then Mr. Civiletti supported that claim by denying he had talked to the president about the case, and he reinforced his assertion by explaining, "We don't make it a practice of discussing investigations with the White House." But within a few hours, the White House told Mr. Civiletti that the president had made a note of a conversation the two of them had had about Billy and that the note would probably become public knowledge. That led Mr. Civiletti to put out a statement admitting to having had an "informal, brief exchange" about Billy Carter with the president but trying to explain away his first statement as a matter of linguistics.
Mr. Civiletti's attempted distinction between an "informal, brief exchange" and a "talk" or "discussion" won't stand up. It is a lawyer's quibble and not even a very good one. In common everyday language, a person who says he hasn't "talked" with someone is eliminating all conversation except, maybe, hello and goodbye. By admitting on Friday what he denied on Thursday, Mr. Civiletti has, at best, conveyed the impression that he and the Department of Justice follow the prevailing political winds and, at worst, that they are prepared to shave the truth to protect the president. It is this conflict between Mr. Civiletti's statements -- not the fact that he spoke to the president about Billy Carter's problems -- that raises questions about the integrity of the Justice Department, and that has raised all those Watergate ghosts.
While Mr. Civiletti probably exercised poor judgment in even mentioning the matter to the president, it could be argued he was merely carrying out the attorney general's traditional role of warning his boss of impending legal storms. And it is also true that there is still no evidence suggesting that the department yielded to -- or was even subjected to -- influence in the Billy Carter case. In fact, the existing public record indicates the case was handled no differently from the way other, similar cases have been handled. But those conflicting statements of the attorney general raise a shadow of a doubt about the process through which this case was settled. Neither Mr. Civiletti, the department nor the White House can stand much more of this.