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Dana Parsons

When Young Political Acolytes Fall for Their Own Tricks

March 29, 1996|Dana Parsons

Have you been following the Scott Baugh matter, I asked the lawyer on the other end of the phone.

Yes, he said quite softly, he'd been following the budding scandal since it broke in the papers a few months ago. But unlike the way some political junkies get a kick out of such revelations, his voice gave off no hint of titillation. If anything, he sounded melancholy.

The lawyer's name is Donald Segretti, and he knows all about political scandal. Now 54, he has spent the last 25 years of his life living down his association with dirty tricks. Segretti spent much of 1971, the year before the presidential election, performing various acts of political sabotage against Democratic presidential candidates. Segretti's name was one of the first exposed during the Watergate scandal of 1972 that eventually brought down the Nixon White House.

No one is suggesting that last November's 67th Assembly District election approaches Watergate-level corruption, but miniaturized similarities abound. For one thing, the alleged illegal acts were meant to disrupt the opposition's election chances. For another, the alleged improprieties seem like overkill--unnecessary to ensuring victory. For another, the scandal's first victims were young political operatives.

It was that last thing I wanted to ask Segretti about. I ticked off the ages of some people implicated thus far in the Baugh election scandal: 24, 25, 26, 27.

He was aware of that, he said, having already lamented their youthfulness when discussing the scandal with his wife. "My experience in life is that a combination of the exuberance of youth and the passion of the moment allows people to do things that changes their life," Segretti said. "Upon reflection, if they had reflected at the moment, these people wouldn't have done these things, as I don't believe they are bad people."

He bases that on instinct, he said, not knowing those implicated. I couldn't help but conjecture that Segretti was reliving his own youthful mistakes.

"Another thought too," he said. "And that is, it is not illegal to get someone to run as a candidate. It may not be moral, but it's certainly not illegal. But they got caught up in this and then, it appears, allegedly they signed documents without really reflecting on it properly."

You sound pained, I said. "It pains me when I see young people, who appear to be good, decent people, get into a problem, particularly when it gets [reported] all over the newspaper day after day."

Segretti said he isn't condoning the tactics of last November, when phantom candidate Laurie Campbell tried to get on the Democratic ticket to siphon votes from a more proven Democratic vote-getter who was facing Baugh and three other Republicans. The district attorney's scenario is that the effort was engineered by GOP operatives to ensure a GOP victory.

I asked Segretti what he would say to the young activists implicated thus far. "I'd say, 'All right, you've got a serious problem now. The thing is to cure the problem in such a way that your life is not ruined. You've got to do what's right, what you feel is right for you and the system.' That's what I would tell them."

In "All the President's Men," the Watergate book written by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Segretti, then not much older than those in the Baugh scandal, was portrayed as likable and naive. Bernstein expressed his surprise that the baby-faced, diminutive Segretti was the dirty-tricks operative he'd heard so much about.

As recounted in the book, Segretti told Bernstein then: "'I really want to tell the whole story and get this thing over with. I don't understand how I got in over my head. I didn't know what it was all about. They never told me anything except my own role. . . . What I did was mostly nickel-dime stuff. Maybe fifteen cents or a quarter every once in a while."

I told Segretti that one of my vivid Watergate memories was of a young aide named Gordon Strachan, who, during Senate testimony in the Watergate hearings, was asked what he'd tell young people considering politics: "My advice," Strachan said, fighting tears, "would be to stay away."

"Do you remember my lines?" Segretti asked me. "My lines were that good, competent young people, smart people, should be encouraged to get into politics but [to do so] with their eyes wide open. That means you have to make your own judgments. Politics is a special degree of trust. If you get into politics, you've got to be extremely moral and that doesn't always happen, due to pressures and other things."

Corruption occurs, it seems to me, when activists see politics as "war." Does it have to be warfare, I asked Segretti. "It should not be war. That's not what politics is all about. . . . It's the use of power with discretion and restraint. That's what the Founding Fathers talked about, that's why we have checks and balances. That's why they did it the way they did."

In 1973, Segretti pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor counts of distributing illegal campaign literature. He was sentenced to six months in prison and served 4 1/2 months in the federal penitentiary at Lompoc. His law license was suspended for two years.

He begged off when I asked what he considered appropriate punishment in this case, other than to say: "I don't like to see people get hurt like this. There are plenty of more serious offenses that people get into that deserve, in a sense, severe punishment. And these are basically good people. I don't want to see their lives ruined."

Dana Parsons' columns appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at the Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.

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