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SATURDAY JOURNAL

Stony Path to Impeachment

During Watergate, partisan zeal gave way to sober inquiry. Course of Clinton scandal is still unclear.

October 31, 1998|JACK NELSON | CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT

WASHINGTON — Richard Nixon was approaching his hour of crisis. Months earlier, former White House Counsel John W. Dean III had testified that Nixon had supported paying $1 million in hush money to the Watergate burglars. The House Judiciary Committee was deep into its closed-door consideration of impeachment.

Now, on a windy March day in 1974, rumors swirled through Washington that the committee was focusing on a White House tape confirming Nixon's personal involvement in a cover-up, something many of us still had trouble believing in that long-ago and far less cynical era.

With the uncertainty mounting, Albert E. Jenner Jr., a lifelong member of the GOP establishment and chief counsel for the Judiciary Committee's Republican minority, had agreed to a confidential lunch with me and another Times reporter at a private club on Capitol Hill. It was a tense moment. The tape had not been released. Nixon was arguing in the court of public opinion that it was nonexplosive and ambiguous.

A White House source already had told me that Nixon was lying. But I needed a second source before I could write anything so controversial, and I asked Jenner what was on the tape.

Calm and urbane in his customary bow tie, Jenner paused for a long sip of iced tea. He looked back and forth at us. His answer--when it came--reflected a remarkable transformation that ultimately would spread through not only the Judiciary Committee but the entire Congress.

"When you hear the tape, you have a lot more respect for Dean's integrity and what he told the Senate Watergate Committee," the Republicans' chief lawyer said in a voice that did not rise above a whisper.

"It is that explosive. It is not ambiguous."

As the great constitutional crisis of 1974 began, the partisan furor was at least as intense as that engulfing President Clinton today. As late as the spring of 1974, only four months before Nixon became the first president ever to resign, many Democrats were attacking with unbridled glee, and Republicans accused Nixon's foes of "wallowing in Watergate."

Yet before the scandal could run its course, players on both sides would grow steadily more sober and dispassionate--rising, as Jenner had, to meet the demands of history.

Several months after the lunch, Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.) told me that in the panel's long, secret sessions, "a change is taking place" among even the most partisan members. "They are feeling and sensing the seriousness of it as something that is going to stay with us for our lifetime and the lifetime of our country."

Whether the Clinton inquiry ultimately will follow such a course remains unclear.

There are striking contrasts between the two inquiries--contrasts that go beyond the sharp differences in the nature of the allegations. The deeply partisan votes already taken in the House will make it difficult to approach impeachment dispassionately.

At the same time, there are parallels that give grounds to expect more than sheer partisanship. If these omens prevail, today's House Judiciary Committee, led by Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), might indeed see Republicans and Democrats put aside politics and judge the allegations calmly against the Constitution's standard of "high crimes and misdemeanors."

Former Rep. Tom Railsback of Illinois, a Judiciary Committee Republican who ultimately voted to impeach his friend Nixon, said in an interview that he believes bipartisanship will prevail again.

"Peter Rodino rose to the occasion," said Railsback, who now lives in Rancho Mirage. "Henry Hyde is a class act and knows the importance of conducting the proceedings fairly."

Nixon on Different Footing From Clinton

Twenty-four years later, it is hard to comprehend how much Washington has changed since Watergate. Many of the changes, directly related as they are to that turbulent period, have helped shape events in the Clinton scandal.

Nixon was a hated figure among Democrats. Older liberals never forgave his Red-baiting in the McCarthy era. Younger activists despised him for continuing the Vietnam War.

Nonetheless, Nixon entered the Watergate period on a far different footing from Clinton's at the beginning of his troubles.

Opposition to Nixon rested chiefly on political and philosophical grounds, not on his personal life or character. Missing was the moral loathing that runs through much of the criticism of Clinton.

More important, the attitude of the news media toward government leaders was vastly different.

In April 1973, when Newsweek ran an article suggesting that Nixon might be involved in obstruction of justice, I recoiled in disbelief. Though I was an experienced investigative reporter and frequently had exposed governmental wrongdoing, I found it unbelievable that the president of the United States would be involved in a major crime.

As a result, my own standards of proof were very high. So were those of my editors and the heads of other major news organizations.

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