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Brasilia, Brazil, November 11, 1996. The president was first elected four years before, in a bruising three-way fight that ended in a squeaker, with the president winning with a plurality, not a majority, and getting only about 43 percent of the vote. A cantankerous Southerner had declared himself the candidate of a third party, and, some would say, stole enough votes from the president's opponent to determine the election. The president's past had given him headaches as well, with more than a few whispers of scandal still clinging to him.
The president was determined that his re-election bid would be different, and things indeed did break his way. His opponent, though an honorable man, came through his party's primaries as damaged goods. Long before the convention, the opponent's ultimate defeat in November seemed as inevitable as his nomination. The economy improved. The president scored impressive foreign-policy successes in the year prior to the election. It was enough to encourage the president to hope for more than squeaking through. The president decided that he wanted not just to win re-election, but to win big, and put the memory of his previous paper-thin plurality behind him.
But the old scandals and controversies, and, perhaps, the undeniable flaws in his own personality, had made the president the object of absolute, unreasoning hatred for much of the opposition. He was accused of committing the most henious of crimes, of indulging in incredible lapses of honesty, judgment, and personal behavior. New and scandalous revealations seemed to pop up, like clockwork, throughout the campaign. His opponent expressed astonishment at the way the voters did not seem to care about the scandals. The president, it seemed to his opponents, would stoop to anything, would stop at nothing -- and the voters seemed willing to ignore everything.
The president won re-election by a landslide in the electoral college, and seemed poised to start his second term moving from strength to strength. But the scandalous revelations unearthed during his re-election bid continued to dog him. He seemed unable to shake loose of them all. And then...
Well, why go on? You know the rest of the story. The above few paragraphs concerns themselves with President Richard M. Nixon, and the elections of 1968 and 1972. At least I hope they do. It's hard not to worry, at least a little.
President William Jefferson Clinton won re-election last week, and I voted for him on my absentee ballot. I voted for him four years ago as well. I think he is a good -- though not perfect -- president. I don't think Senator Dole was ever able to offer up any compelling reason for us to make him president, beyond the fact that he wanted it and had wanted it for a long time. I don't much care for the idea of divided government in principle, but given that the Congress is going to be in Republican hands for a while, and given that some of those Republicans have some ideas that I find pretty strange, I am just as glad to have a Democrat -- just about any Democrat -- in the White House.
And yet. And yet. It is a little hard to avoid worrying, at least a little, about what happens next in the little story that begins this column, if one presumes that it concerns Clinton and not Nixon.
But Clinton is not Nixon. The flaws of the one man have nothing to do with the flaws of the other. Clinton is not more or less openly paranoid, and Nixon was not reputed to have a roving eye. Nor do I believe the current scandals -- Whitewater, the FBI file mess, the illegal campaign contributions -- are comparable in scope to what happened under Nixon. It seems unlikely that Clinton has used the CIA to subvert an FBI investigation, or drawn up a Enemies List of people to go after once he was safely re-elected. I doubt that he has tried to use the IRS as a weapon to punish his "enemies." I seriously doubt that Al Gore, Clinton's hand-picked Vice President, has had satchels full of cash, actual bribe payments, delivered to his office, as Spiro Agnew had done.
But I do believe that Clinton has surrounded himself, at least in part, with second-raters who then went out and hired third-raters who hired fourth-raters who then went out and did incredibly dumb, stupid, incompetent, illegal things in the name of and on behalf of the President of the United States. I do believe the Clintons were connected with a few people who bent a few rules in and around Arkansas. I think it is possible that they bent a few rules themselves. I believe that, in the attempt to keep these minor infractions hidden, the people around the President commited somewhat -- but not drastically -- graver offenses.
I believe that it is virtually impossible for any ethics committee chaired by someone as sleazy as Senator Alphonse Demato to conduct a full, fair, and impartial investigation of anyone Demato doesn't like, and that nothing but the hope for political gain drove him to investigate the Clintons. I believe that the Senator himself knows that, and knows we know, and doesn't care. His decision not to continue his Whitewater probe came immediately after Clinton had carried his state by a large margin, just two years before Demato has to run for re-election. What an astounding coincidence.
Lots of people, have of course, compared the two sets of scandals, and, clearly, there are parallels. But no matter how many superficial similarities there are between the two, they are are nothing like each other. I have been rereading All The President's Men and The Final Days, the two books by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward about the Watergate scandal, and they serve to remind just how different the Nixon scandals were from the Clinton scandals. The core differences, I believe, stem from the core similarity: both scandals were made possible by the personality, the attitude, the work-habits, of the man at the top. Nixon was paranoid, and Watergate was a paranoid act. Clinton likes to find the easy way around, to step around a problem rather than go through it. He tries to pretend problems aren't there. Whitewater started out, as best I can tell, as an attempt to make a quick and (mostly) honest buck, but it went sour. The Clintons swept it under the rug and pretended the lump in the carpet wasn't there as long as possible. Nixon believed everyone was out to get him. Clinton believes it is possible for him to talk his way out of anything. The strange thing is that, so far, history would suggest they were both right.
Another big difference between the two scandals is that with Nixon's administration, all the incredible accusations turned out to be true. His people did seriously consider blowing up the Brookings Institute, and actually did set up a completely extra-legal and illegal operation in the White House itself, for the purpose of investigating the President's enemies. The President actually did discuss how, how much, and when to pay cash bribes to convicted felons, and did so in the Oval Office. The lunatic accusations against Clinton -- starting with the accusation that Vince Foster was murdered -- are just that: lunatic. Just as there were people who hated Nixon because he was Nixon, there are those who hate Clinton because he is Clinton.
Two years ago no one thought Clinton had a ghost of a chance at being re-elected. He won, and won big -- but the ghost of Watergate does hover, if not over Clinton, at least somewhere in the general vicinity. Watergate demonstrated that it was possible for a presidency to self-destruct. But it does not follow that it will happen again.
I don't believe in ghosts. I think it's going to be all right. I think Clinton will do good things for the country, and I think he will find new and interesting ways to screw things up, and new and interesting ways to extricate himself from whatever needless mess he invents for himself. I don't think he'll wreck the country, or destroy the Democratic Party, or cause the Senate to check the rulebook on how to handle an impeachment. This is not Watergate Two.
But let's hope, for the sake of the country, that William Jeffferson Clinton is remembered for something a bit more positive that not being Richard M. Nixon.
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