An abridged version of this column originally appeared in the Washington Times Oct. 8, 1998.
In their ceaseless efforts to trivialize the Clinton scandals, the president’s defenders proudly and gleefully cite Watergate as the mother of all scandals. When anyone dares to challenge this conventional wisdom, Clinton loyalists smugly remind them that Nixon “subverted the Constitution.” The mere utterance of this hallowed phrase is designed to summarily end the discussion. Isn’t it time we demand a hearing on this matter?
Because of Democratic attempts to minimize the president’s behavior, it is important that we look beyond the platitudes and examine the substantive similarities in these two unfortunate episodes in American presidential history. Unrevised history reveals that Clinton’s actions and behavior (limited to Monicagate alone) rivals or exceeds President Nixon’s Watergate misconduct.
Ann Coulter, in her book “High Crimes and Misdemeanors,” observes that the underlying act in Watergate that launched Nixon’s cover-up was neither committed by Nixon nor at his direction. The “act” was a crime: burglary of the Democratic Party headquarters. But despite tireless efforts of investigators both during and after the scandal and countless numbers of candid tape-recorded presidential conversations, no credible evidence has ever been adduced linking Nixon to the break-in at the Watergate. Though embarrassing to the party and the president, this crime in no way directly incriminated Richard Nixon.
The underlying act in Monicagate was the president’s sexual relationship with a 21 year old intern. With Monicagate, the foundational act wasn’t a crime. But it did directly involve the actions of the president himself and was far more serious than “a private matter involving sex between two consenting adults.” It involved an egregious violation of federal sexual harassment laws by the president, an abominable dishonoring of the Oval Office, adultery and outrageously reckless and irresponsible behavior by our commander-in-chief (who engaged in these dalliances while: 1) making Yasser Arafat wait for him in the Rose Garden; and 2) speaking with Rep. Sonny Callahan, chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on foreign relations, about the congressman’s vote to send American troops to Bosnia where they would be risking their lives for the nation they respected, even if their commander-in-chief didn’t). As part of the underlying “act” Clinton also engaged in scores of phone-sex interludes with Lewinsky, notwithstanding his suspicion that the public phone line he was using was tapped by foreign states, presumably willing to blackmail him and compromise our national security in the appropriate circumstances.
Now, let’s take a look at the subsequent alleged misconduct of each of the two presidential role-models. Let’s compare some of the remarkable similarities between these supposedly dissimilar scandals:
Nixon allegedly obstructed justice by lying and withholding evidence from investigative officers and encouraging witnesses to lie; Clinton allegedly obstructed justice before two tribunals, civil and criminal, by conspiring to conceal gifts; suborning Monica’s perjury, procuring and submitting a false affidavit and tampering with grand jury witness, Betty Currie.
Nixon allegedly approved the payment of hush money to potential witnesses; Clinton allegedly obstructed justice by procuring jobs for silence.
Nixon allegedly lied to the American people about a White House investigation of the scandal that never occurred; Clinton admittedly lied to the American people for more than seven months about his sexual relationship with Monica.
Nixon allegedly misused the FBI and Secret Service through unlawful wiretaps and maintained the plumbers unit at the White House; Clinton’s White House had more than 1,000 secret FBI files in its possession and has allegedly hired private investigators to dig up dirt on political opponents (these incidents admittedly not technically being part of Monicagate).
Nixon allegedly impeded the proper administration of justice by failing to prevent his subordinates from impeding the investigations; Clinton allegedly obstructed justice by causing his subordinates to lie to the grand jury.
Nixon allegedly usurped the impeachment power of Congress by choosing not to comply with its subpoena without submitting a lawful objection; Clinton, in his grand jury testimony, refused to answer lawful questions of the independent counsel (to be turned over to Congress) without interposing any legal objection. He also allegedly asserted (and sometimes withdrew) myriad phony privilege claims — all to deter and obstruct the grand jury investigation.
The purpose of this piece, though, is not to justify Nixon’s conduct, especially with respect to governmental agencies. But it is to challenge the universally accepted assertion that such conduct was worse and more subversive of the Constitution than Clinton’s alleged behavior.
Nixon himself never testified nor submitted any sworn affidavits to any tribunal, judicial or legislative. Clinton clearly lied under oath numerous times in both civil and criminal proceedings and most recently to Congress, in his Responses to Henry Hyde’s 81 Requests for Admission.
The worst allegations about Nixon concerned subverting the Constitution by misusing the CIA and FBI. Yet both agencies are in the Executive branch of government under the direct authority of the President as Chief Executive Officer.
Clinton, by contrast, directed his primary assault against another coequal branch of government, the judiciary. Historians and constitutional scholars will agree that the delicate separation of powers among the three branches is fundamental to our constitutional system of government. His war against the judicial branch constitutes a threat to this system. This attack on the judicial branch has consisted of overwhelming evidence of scores of perjuries, multiple counts of obstruction of justice and admitted attempts to mislead his party opponents and the courts. Perhaps more damaging than all of this, however, was his opprobrious mockery of the judicial system during his grand jury testimony by his ludicrous parsing of the English language as he feebly endeavored to explain away his civil perjury. And, as the chief exemplar of the moral values for the nation and its children, he has through his conduct and that of his defenders attempted to systematically undermine the American cultural heritage as to what constitutes right and wrong. He has defined deviancy down by shamelessly trivializing his misconduct and trying to redefine acceptable societal standards.
If Clinton defenders and Watergate zealots insist on maintaining that “subversions of the Constitution” epitomize impeachable conduct then the rest of us should be prepared to meet them on their terms. How could there be a more salient example of subverting the Constitution than the president conducting thermo-nuclear war on the judiciary and the rule of law? Multiple perjuries and obstructions of justice by President Clinton constitute a direct violation of his oath as chief executive officer to take care that the laws be faithfully executed. The judicial system and the rule of law are the bedrock of our constitutional system. The viability of the judicial system is wholly dependent upon witnesses upholding their oath and duty to testify truthfully. For the chief law enforcement officer of the United States himself to repeatedly violate that duty, to encourage others to do likewise and then to compound the injury by downplaying the gravity of such misconduct to the American people strikes at the very heart of our judicial system and constitutes the ultimate constitutional subversion.