Fred Thompson opened the Watergate questioning on the secret Nixon tapes, whose revelations are still coming out: "Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?" Mr. Thompson, fresh from Tennessee, was GOP counsel to the Senate committee investigating a Republican president, and he was commended by the Democratic chairman, Sen. Sam Ervin, when it was all over.
Now Thompson himself is a senator and chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee investigating campaign funding. Even though he has had a film career in the meantime - no offense, Mr. Reagan - those who remember his rocklike lawyering 23 years ago will expect a job of work, not a performance.
Whatever the outcome, Thompson begins with a presumption of credibility. It is his to lose, and so far it seems more important to him than scoring partisan points. Ranking minority member Sen. John Glenn expressed confidence in the chairman but served notice he will be looking for equity and recommendations for reform, not an endless inquiry into Democrats.
To be sure, the investigation was impelled by such questions as whether the Democrats' return of $1 million in improper donations would ever have happened if someone else had not drawn attention to such activities. Thompson has made clear he expects full White House cooperation without unwarranted claims of executive privilege, something enshrined in Watergate memories. But he can hardly ignore such things as the reported GOP quid pro quos for big contributors or the tax-exemption questions raised by the Newt Gingrich probe.
"It is of extreme importance that our investigation and our hearings be perceived by the American people as being fair and even-handed," said Sen. Thompson, starting right. Now to follow through on assurances like "our work will include any improper activities by Republicans, Democrats, or other political partisans ... we must let the chips fall where they may."