Many Republicans in the U.S. have publicly compared the Monica Lewinsky scandal with the Watergate scandal of the Nixon Administration. Some of these same Republicans used to say that Watergate was nothing more than politics and Nixon should never have been forced to resign. Nixon used to say so himself. So if the Lewinsky scandal is similar to Watergate, then I guess they are saying that Clinton shouldn’t resign either.
Just to set the record straight, I thought I would render a public service by offering a short refresher on Watergate.
In the early planning stages of the 1972 election campaign, a night watchman at the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C. spotted some masking tape over a lock on a door leading to the National Headquarters of the Democratic Party. He called the police and several men were arrested and charged with burglary. At the hearing before a District Court, one of the men admitted that he had been an employee of the CIA. A reporter for the Washington Post, Bob Woodward, got curious about this connection and started investigating the case more thoroughly.
So Watergate began with a criminal act. A criminal act is a violation of the public laws of the land. The Lewinsky affair, of course, began with a case of adultery. And because Lewinsky was a consenting partner to the offense, there was no criminal act involved (though the Republicans made more than a passing attempt to characterize Clinton’s actions as “sexual harassment”, because it involved an employee. Republican House Leader, Newt Gingrich, at precisely the same time, was having an affair with one of his own office employees, while his wife was ill with cancer!)
A few months later, Bob Haldeman, one of Richard Nixon’s top aides, informed the President that the FBI was investigating the burglary. Nixon instructed Haldeman to tell the FBI to stop their investigation, and he agreed to a payment of “hush money” to the burglars. This is called “Obstruction of Justice” in legal terms and is a serious criminal offense, especially when it is committed by a public official entrusted with the authority to enforce the law.
There is no evidence that Clinton attempted to use his office to influence the investigation of the Monica Lewinsky affair. Even if you believe the worst case scenario, that Clinton asked Lewinsky to lie to the Special Prosecutor, no sane person would regard such activity as being in any way comparable to authorizing the disbursement of bribes or attempting to interfere with the criminal investigation of a burglary of a political party’s national headquarters. We should add that the burglars were attempting to plant listening devices on the phones in the offices of the Chairman of the Democratic Party. This certainly goes beyond what Nixon liked to characterize as “dirty tricks” when discussing other acts of sabotage conducted by his underlings during the election campaigns. At the core of the Watergate scandal, there were a number of discrete criminal acts, and the cover-up was intended to prevent the men who committed these acts from being caught. As much as the Republicans would like to suggest that Clinton’s attempts to conceal his affair with Monica constituted a similar act of malfeasance, it is absurd to say that because both Nixon and Clinton tried to conceal that they were concealing actions that were substantively similar.
Nixon’s legal advisor, Charles Colson, was instructed to keep a list of “enemies”. This list included political commentators like CBS’s Daniel Schorr, liberal activist performers like Paul Newman, and other public figures and journalists. The Internal Revenue Service was instructed to conduct thorough audits of the tax returns of many of the people on the list. This is a rather serious abuse of authority.
Nixon’s staff hired former CIA employees to break into the offices of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in a coordinated attempt to discredit the well-known source of “The Pentagon Papers”. This, of course, again, was a criminal act. We don’t know if Nixon knew about it before it was carried out, but he definitely knew about it afterwards and again authorized a cover-up.
Nixon ordered secret bombings of Cambodia despite legislation which clearly required him to inform Congress promptly of such measures. He ordered his staff to lie about the bombings before a Congressional Committee. As a result of these bombings, the government of Cambodia was destabilized and subsequently over-thrown by the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge conducted wholesale massacres afterwards, leading to the deaths of millions of Cambodians. The U.S. was already in a state of undeclared war with North Viet Nam (no official declaration was ever made). The bombing of Cambodia was a very serious violation of the rights of a sovereign nation.
Nixon’s personal choice for Vice-President, Spiro Agnew, was charged with influence peddling and extortion and forced to resign. I suppose it’s not a crime to select a criminal to be second-in-line to the office of President of the United States, but it ought to be. Al Gore, on the other hand, is squeaky clean.
Nixon fired the Special Prosecutor, Archibald Cox, after the Supreme Court ruled that the President must accede to his request to turn over the secret tapes of conversations held in the Oval Office shortly after the Watergate break-in. Had he not resigned, this action alone, which was in defiance and contempt of the highest court in the nation, would have been almost certain grounds for impeachment. When Elliot Richardson, the Attorney General, refused to fire Cox, Richardson was fired. When Richardson’s deputy refused to do it, he too was fired. FBI agents were then ordered to seize the offices of the Special Prosecutor.
The move backfired, and alienated even some of Nixon’s staunchest supporters. He was forced to back down and appoint a new Special Prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, who promptly renewed the demand for the tapes.
Having exhausted his legal options, Nixon finally turned over some of the tapes, after announcing that several were missing and that one of the key tapes had an 18-minute gap. Nixon denied that he had ordered the destruction of evidence, but it stretches credulity to believe that he was unaware of the gaps or missing tapes until the day he finally turned them over to the Special Prosecutor.
The tapes revealed that Nixon had in fact participated in the cover-up, ordered the destruction of evidence, ordered his staff to lie to Congress and the Special Prosecutor, ordered hush money to be paid out to informers out of a secret fund controlled by the White House, and had openly suggested that intimidation and extortion could be used to obstruct the investigation. More significantly, the tapes demonstrated that Richard Nixon believed that he was above and outside of the law. The conversations reveal a petty, insecure, vindictive little man who thought nothing of using the privileges of his office to lash out at political enemies and intimidate those who thwarted his plans. When he tried to use “Executive Privilege” to hide evidence of his wrong-doing, he became a genuine threat to the rule of law and the democratic process and to the institutions of accountable government. His crimes were very serious and, had he not resigned, he deserved to be impeached, and he would certainly have been impeached, and a large number of Republicans, (including present Secretary of Defense, William Cohen), would have joined the Democrats in voting for impeachment.
To compare the Lewinsky affair to Watergate is ludicrous.