"The White House has waited a year for Watergate to go away or to find the best possible moment to answer it. The only best moment was the moment it occurred - June 17, 1972. Every subsequent moment has been a worse moment."

If we had not had to write these words in 1973 - if President Nixon had promptly dealt with his henchmen's burglary of Democratic Party Watergate offices - then "-gate" would not be a suffix of infamy, affixed to every scandal since. And the break-in's 25th anniversary would not bring media laments that public trust in Washington has never fully returned.

As questions of illegal political finance cause Senate hearings to begin once again, we think of indomitable Sen. Sam Ervin, chairman of the Watergate investigating committee. He suggested the kind of standards that might restore public trust when he cited the Constitution to Nixon aide John Dean: "'He' - that is the president - 'shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.' Do you know anything that the president did or said ... to perform his duty to see that the laws are faithfully executed in respect to what is called the Watergate affair?"

Mr. Dean's reply was not conclusive. We wished then to hear Mr. Nixon say, "Yes, I did try to see the laws were faithfully executed, and here are the steps I took." We wish now to hear what President Clinton "did or said," in Ervin's words, to see that campaign laws were faithfully executed.

Whatever facts are belatedly exposed this time, we suggest the workings of the system should remind Americans that "everybody does it" is no more true now than during Watergate. The political processes deserve upholding, not condemnation for the lapses of individuals.

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