Comparing Watergate and Monica
Jude Wanniski
December 9, 1998


Memo To: Rep. Howard Coble [R-NC]
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Impeachment Hearings

I may be wrong, but in yesterday's Judiciary Committee hearings I think you became the first to put President Clinton's conduct in the Lewinsky matter on the same plane as Richard Nixon's behavior in Watergate. Here were several of the prosecutors in the Watergate hearings appearing before Judiciary at the request of the President's lawyers. One after another they insisted that Clinton's conduct, while reprehensible and deserving of censure or reprimand, was certainly in no way as foul as Nixon's sins in Watergate. Even some of your Republican colleagues on the committee seemed to agree that this is no Watergate. You put it all in context by reminding us that if Clinton's difficulties simply involve consensual sex, Watergate was ultimately about "a third-rate burglary."

In other words, President Nixon was finally forced to leave the White House in disgrace over what had at first seemed an inconsequential break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Hotel. Indeed, nobody ever accused Nixon of having been involved in planning the break-in, which occurred on June 17, 1972, months before Nixon's landslide re-election victory over Sen. George McGovern, the Democratic nominee. Because the "burglars11 had all been associated in one way or another with the Bay of Pigs and subsequent efforts to advance the interests of the Cuban emigre community, Nixon at first assumed this was a free-lance effort by some of his supporters to show that a President McGovern would patch things up with Fidel Castro. He became increasingly concerned with indications that White House staff— Chuck Colson and G. Gordon Liddy — had known about the break-in plans. In his memoirs, he says he knew the truth would eventually come out and that it would be best if Liddy stepped forward and told the truth. But what if former Attorney General John Mitchell, head of the Nixon re-election committee, also knew? This was the point at which Nixon stepped onto the slippery slope. Fearful that the break-in had ties throughout his administration and political campaign, he was pulled into a campaign of damage control. This was his undoing.

There is no evidence in the record that Nixon ever lied under oath or that he ever lied to the nation. The evidence that piled up against him was all circumstantial. The fact that White House counsel John Dean testified for the prosecution did not prove that Nixon lied, only that he had been pulled incrementally into a never-ending process of "damage control." I had been assigned by The Wall Street Journal editorial page to cover Watergate. Even at the time of Nixon's resignation, I believed he really wasn't guilty of the heinous crimes the Democrats accused him of, but that he had no realistic alternative. The House would have no choice but to vote articles of impeachment. I believed he would win a Senate trial, as the nuances of his behavior became evident, but that it would tie the nation up for a year — in the midst of the Cold War and with the national economy sinking fast.

I'm not going to suggest that what Clinton admits to doing is worse than what Nixon did, but I do agree with you that "consensual sex" has nothing do with it — except as the first mis-step on a slippery slope. I'd vote for articles of impeachment simply on the grounds of probable cause. In a Senate trial, as the nuances of President Clinton's behavior could be understood, it could well be that he would get my vote.