A poor excuse for a scandal

Those denigrating Bill Clinton’s scandal as not holding a candle to Watergate are usually not in the same league as those of us who are still carrying a torch for Nixon’s woes. They say that what Clinton did was nowhere near as bad as what Nixon did, which is true, but they leave out the part of the comparison that bothers long-time Watergate junkies like me. What bothers us is not the strength of the comparison so much as its existence; we are horrified that anyone would even think of comparing this tawdry spectacle with the great, world-shaking panorama of Watergate.

Maybe it’s like old farts maintaining that World War II was a better war than Korea or Vietnam, or that there’ll never be another crash like the Great Depression. Obviously, they’re right, and just as obviously, to me, there will never be another scandal like Watergate. Even if there will be, this isn’t it.

Judge the scandals by their mea culpas. Clinton shows every sign of remaining in denial as long as the American public remains apathetic. When he does admit wrong-doing, he will continue to couple his admissions with glib jibes at Ken Starr about wasting the taxpayers’ money. He seems to be saying he lied about his dalliance, but it was Starr’s fault. None of this can compare to Nixon’s ten-word summary of Watergate. In one sentence, he managed to both admit guilt and blame his enemies. When he finally summed things up, there were no passive constructions – mistakes were made – nor qualifying additions. He made his summation, in a series of interviews with David Frost, in a pair of stark declarative clauses, then he shut up, like a priest letting the homily soak in.

“I gave them a sword, and they stuck it in,” Nixon said.

That’s a much better summation than “I am not a crook.” The latter quote was indeed an astounding thing for a president to feel he had to say to the American people. But it’s easy to forget through the fog of time that nobody was accusing Nixon of being a crook. A liar, certainly, an abuser of power, no doubt, hubris on the hoof, without question. But crook wasn’t part of the equation. His “crook” statement was germane not because it had anything to do with the scandal but because he said it. The line about the sword, though – that one resounded.

Compare it to anything Clinton’s said so far. “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

Forget for a moment that he was lying at the time and focus on the quote’s historical value, on what it says about the man. For one thing, it says he couldn’t remember her name. Could he remember her face -- maybe the top of her head -- or did he make advances on spec at every black-haired dumpling in the White House? Notice also that he didn’t say he didn’t have sexual relation with any woman besides his wife. The comment was good for that one woman, in that one scandal, that one day.

But back to Nixon’s quote. “They” referred to enemies whose names will make the history books. Look at his enemies list and you get a pretty good cross-section of mid-century America. They were people who mattered, movers and shakers, people who could take a stand. If we did not have great men in Leon Jaworski and Archibald Cox and Peter Rodino, we at least had men who rose to the occasion and saw their finest moments during the scandals. Ken Starr’s finest moments came in a lawsuit over mufflers, and Clinton’s other enemies have a greater investment in histrionics than history.

Watergate also had a story line that lent itself to swords. Watergate involved great themes and great corruption. Archibald Cox asked as he was being fired whether we were to be a nation of men or a nation of laws. Ken Starr asked whether Clinton ejaculated. Watergate saw the acting FBI director burning evidence with his Christmas trash, and the CIA refusing to support a claim of national security to protect the burglars. Clinton’s scandals saw the Secret Service looking the other way while Clinton and his tart slunk into a hallway. Watergate played out against the backdrop of the Cold War, with a saber-rattling world-wide military alert following close on the heals of the Saturday Night Massacre. Clinton’s troubles played out against a backdrop of terrorism and misdirected cruise missiles a few days after his grand jury testimony.

And so Watergate gave us great themes, a great story, people behaving greatly, and great quotes. Clinton’s scandals have given us euphemisms for blowjobs.

And so Nixon could sum up his misadventure with a tragic and dramatic description of the grand opportunity he handed his adversaries. “I gave them a sword, and they stuck it in.”

Let us not think about what Clinton handed to his enemies, and let us think even less about whether, and where, it was stuck in.

Last Revised: 05.07.05    Publisher: Joseph Gus Fitzgerald