One must be very careful about mentioning Richard Nixon when talking about the ethical problems of a sitting president. One must hastily mention that excesses of President Carter (Lancegate), President Reagan (Iran-contra) and, currently, President Clinton, are not in the same league as Watergate.
And that is certainly true - at least up to this point. President Nixon committed a coverup for which he had to be pardoned. He was driven out of office by his illegal actions. His own tapes clearly showed that he ordered such actions.
It is obvious that Mr. Clinton and the Democratic National Committee have been reckless in their fund-raising activities. But, unless further probings disclose that there has been a presidential quid pro quo handed out to a contributor after stays at or visits to the White House, Clinton doesn't appear to have gotten himself into serious hot water. By turning the White House into "Hotel Clinton," the president has demeaned the office. But he will survive. Indeed, last Friday the media found Clinton remaining calm under fire, adroitly holding his ground.
Actually, until now, this fund-raising scandal - which now touches Vice President Al Gore - had barely scratched Clinton politically. He still has high approval ratings, even though more than 50 percent of Americans question the president's ethical conduct in raising funds.
But there is one striking parallel between Clinton's ethical problems and Nixon's: Both came about because of excesses in trying to win an election. In both instances, the elections probably would have been won without the effort that strained or broke the rules of campaigning.
George McGovern's anti-Vietnam War stand, although later widely judged as admirable, made him a probable loser in 1972. And Clinton likely would have beaten Bob Dole, a nice guy but a fair-to-middling campaigner, without inviting possible contributors to sleep in the Lincoln bedroom.
But most of the voters, including the bulk of Nixon's Republican constituents, turned their backs on him after the "smoking-gun" disclosure of illegal conduct in his taped conversations. Indeed, Nixon's approval rating had fallen to nearly 20 percent by the time he made up his mind to step down and not face impeachment proceedings.
CLINTON has had his "smoking gun," too, in the form of a 1995 memo from a party aide to the president proposing a plan to reward top money-givers with coffees, dinners, golf, etc. To the suggestions, Clinton wrote, "Yes, pursue all 3 and promptly - and get other names at 100,000 or more, 50,000 or more. Ready to start overnights right away - give me the top 10 list back, along with the 100,000, 50,000."
This Clinton fingerprint on fund-raising is millions of miles away from Nixon's disclosure. Clinton is probably doing nothing illegal - just shoddy. The president has defended his actions by asserting that these were just "friends" he was inviting in to see him. But critics are calling it the "cheapening of the White House." Surprisingly, public support for Clinton hasn't flagged. How can we account for that? For a long time now the president has scored low when voters were asked if they "trust" Clinton. But a lot of these same people helped the president get reelected and still say his performance suits them just fine.
I think that many voters who back Clinton may not like his personal ethics but feel that he is an advocate of their views. They are willing to forget or forgive Clinton's excesses because he has convinced them that he's working hard for them on such issues as education and the environment.
I don't think that many Clinton supporters would argue with the recent assessment of top historians that he has been only an average president. But many of them will reply that he is a "compassionate" man who is trying to "do good." For them, Clinton's perceived desire to help others is the all-important moral position that does much to hold their allegiance to this troubled presidency.