Clinton Woes and the Watergate Legacy

Scrutiny of the president brings out the terminology - and actors - of the Nixon imbroglio.

The extraordinary events that have played out in Washington over the past six weeks have seemed at times not so much a new drama as the second act of something that began a quarter-century ago: Watergate.

Consider the Nixonian vocabulary of the Monica Lewinsky matter, which includes "executive privilege," "independent counsel," even "impeachment." Then there are the lawyers, many of whom first trod the national stage as staff for congressional Watergate panels.

Ms. Lewinsky even lives in the Watergate building. What's next - Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein together again at The Washington Post?

The Watergate era was darker and more fraught with import, say some Washington observers. It was Shakespearean tragedy. The situation today has very serious aspects, but also veers at times towards farcical opera bouffe.

And this time the presidency isn't the only institution whose use of power is under scrutiny. Post-Watergate reforms, from the independent counsel to the campaign-finance system, are now in turn the subject of controversy.

Parallels to and reflections of Watergate in today's events "have been a bizarre undercurrent to this whole affair," says Mark Rozell, an American University political science professor.

After the allegations regarding President Clinton and his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky, a former intern, first became news, Washington's very atmosphere seemed Watergate-like.

This represented both a frenzy on the part of the media, a lack of actual facts to report, and a general feeling that important, yet unknown things were looming.

But where the Lewinsky case exploded overnight, Watergate was a long, deliberative investigation. And the core of the case dealt with patterns of behavior on the part of President Nixon that were more serious than those Mr. Clinton is alleged to have done.

The Watergate period "was very frightening," remembered journalist Elizabeth Drew in a recent broadcast interview. "We were talking about whether the Constitution was going to hold."

Been there before

But experience in dealing with serious presidential legal problems is rather rare - and thus many of Watergate's players are resurfacing today. Politicians come and go, but Washington's lawyers tend to be always with us.

Among the connections: Sam Dash was majority counsel for the special Senate committee that probed the Nixon White House. Today he is ethics adviser to independent counsel Ken Starr. Terry Lenzer was a lawyer on the same panel; now he's a private investigator working for Clinton's lawyers. Mr. Starr subpoenaed him last week. And Hillary Rodham Clinton worked for the House Judiciary Committee, which voted to recommend Mr. Nixon's impeachment.

During Watergate, Nixon invoked the concept of "executive privilege" in an attempt to prevent investigators from obtaining the White House tapes.

The Supreme Court decided that executive privilege does protect a president's ability to have frank conversations with aides. But the high court ruled Nixon could not hide behind such privilege, and ordered the tapes turned over.

Though the White House has not publicly acknowledged it, Clinton now appears to be invoking executive privilege in an attempt to shield top aides from testifying about internal discussions in the Lewinsky case.

If so, he's unlikely to do better with the courts than Nixon did, say experts. While executive privilege undoubtedly covers discussions about matters of national security, dealings with interns hardly qualify as such.

"It looks like a really weak claim," says Mr. Rozell, who has written extensively on executive privilege. "Maybe it's a delaying tactic."

Too much power?

Independent counsels are a another major legal connection across the generations between the early '70s and late '90s. But there's a twist: established in the wake of Watergate to guard against abuse of executive power, they are now under fire for having too much power themselves.

Some prosecutors believe Starr has gone too far in issuing subpoenas dealing with White House media contacts, in dragging Lewinsky's mother before a grand jury, and in general investigating the case very aggressively.

Whether his actions are within the bounds of prosecutorial discretion, or an example of an office that has almost become a second branch of government, they have made it easy for the White House to shift attention back to Clinton's accuser.

"People were willing to accept the outcome of independent counsel investigations as impartial for most of the office's history," says Katy Harriger, a Wake Forest University political scientist. "That's in question here."

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