WORLD

The Watergate generation

ANDREW PHILLIPS October 5 1998
WORLD

The Watergate generation

ANDREW PHILLIPS October 5 1998

The Watergate generation

WORLD

ANDREW PHILLIPS

Quick—which up-and-coming young American politico said: “It’s plain that the president should resign and spare the country the agony of this impeachment and removal proceeding”? Was it the same one who said flatly that there is "no question that an admission of making false statements to government officials . . . is an impeachable offence”? And could it be the very same one who said: “This country has suffered so long. . . . There’s not any point now in his putting the country through an impeachment since he isn’t making any pretense of innocence now”?

Yes, Bill Clinton said all that and more about president Richard Nixon during the last great impeachment battle in the United States, Watergate. It was the summer of 1974 and the brash young law professor, not quite 28, was running for office for the first time. For a newcomer, he aimed high— a seat in the House of Representatives. It was a long shot, but the Watergate scandal had embarrassed all Republicans and Clinton hoped he could use it to defeat a well-entrenched Republican congressman in Arkansas’s third congressional district.

He railed against corruption, lying in the White House, abuse of power at the highest levels. He almost made it. He won 48.5 per cent of the vote, and was instantly tagged as the boy wonder of Arkansas politics.

Watergate gave Hillary Rodham her start, as well. Fresh out of Yale Law School, she was hired as a staff lawyer for the House committee investigating the scandal. When she began work in January, 1974, she was just 26, but was given the awesome power to delve into possible crimes by the president of the United States. Rodham helped to compile a history of presidential abuse of power, and analyzed the origin of impeachment in English law. She became known as one of the most radical lawyers on the staff, determined at all cost to root out wrongdoing at the top. One day that summer, shortly before Nixon resigned, she brought her boyfriend to the committee’s offices in a run-down Washington hotel. He was Bill Clinton.

It is no surprise that Watergate marked Bill and Hillary Clinton so profoundly. After Vietnam, it was the most important event shaping the political outlook of the boomer generation. And it wasn’t just a scandal—it was the scandal, the one that set the standard by which all subsequent political implosions have been measured. In his biography of the First Lady, The Seduction of Hillary Rodham, David Brock writes that “for Bill and Hillary’s generation, Watergate was

The Clintons’ legal woes can be traced back to the scandal they cut their career teeth on

not just an unprecedented legal and political battle, but a moral crusade.” So Bill Clinton’s enemies delight in rolling out his old quotes from 1974 and throwing them back in his face. Isn’t it ironic, they say, that the president Slick Willy has turned out to resemble most is old Tricky Dick, the demon of his youth?

Comparisons between Watergate and the Monica Lewinsky affair are enticing. Both began with seemingly trivial offences: the legendary “third-rate burglary” at the Watergate complex, and Clinton’s intensely odd liaison with the intern. Both turned serious because people with power tried to cover them up. There was lying both times, and the president used his power to conceal wrongdoing. The parallel falls flat, though, as soon as the substance of their sins is compared. Nixon was truly scary: he corrupted the security agencies of

the United States to target his political enemies. Clinton is merely tacky. In fact, his very tawdriness may well save him. Should we really exercise the awesome mechanism of impeachment, Americans are asking themselves, for this?

But there is a more direct link between the scandals of the Seventies and those of today. The Watergate generation, Bill and Hillary and all the other idealistic young folk of their time, demanded that such abuse never be permitted again. They remembered the socalled Saturday Night ^ Massacre of 1973, § when Nixon abruptly £ fired the special proseI cutor investigating him. So, in 1978, Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act, which among other things created the post of independent counsel to investigate high political officials. Counsels cannot be fired by the person they are investigating; once their inquiry begins they have nearly unlimited time and money to pursue their quarry. The law reflects the post-Watergate attitude: government, especially people at the top, can’t be trusted.

Since then, independent counsels have mainly tormented Republican presidents, most notably Ronald Reagan over the Iran-contra fiasco. But the president who has suffered most at their hands is, of course, the onetime scourge of presidential lying, Bill Clinton—who, according to The New York Times, even told associates that the pressure of Kenneth Starr’s four-year trawl through his personal life was partly responsible for driving him into Lewinsky’s arms. Clinton’s de fenders may scoff at comparisons between him and Nixon. But he would have been well advised to reflect on the old man’s rueful judgment of how his enemies finally got him. “I brought myself down,’ Nixon said in 1977. “I gave ’em a sword. And they stuck it in.” □