Percy and Goldwater: Speaking Out Against the President

Charles H. Percy called the other day to tell me that I had left out a very important Goldwater-related "incident" in my recent tribute to the man who for many years was referred to as "Mr. Republican."

Mr. Percy, a onetime "boy wonder" in the business world and a hot prospect for the presidency in his early years in the Senate, was right about the omission and its importance.

I had written in my column that Goldwater had turned the tide of public opinion against President Nixon by speaking out against Nixon's conduct in the Watergate scandal. But what I had not mentioned, said Percy, was the fact that Goldwater, accompanied by Percy, about that time had actually met with Nixon to try to persuade him to go on television and apologize to the public for the breakdown in government and excesses of Watergate.

This was before the tapes surfaced, tapes which showed conclusively that Nixon was deeply involved in the Watergate mess. Percy's call to me was the first time I had heard about that visit, which had occurred behind the scenes and was not divulged by any of the participants. So Percy was unveiling a bit of history.

Here's how it came about, in Percy's own words: "I went to see him [Goldwater] one day, before the tapes had been revealed, and indicated that I felt that it would be wise for a conservative and a moderate Republican to go to see the president.... Even though he and I differed on many votes because of our different social and philosophical beliefs, we did agree on the fact that we faced a tragedy with the Nixon administration."

Goldwater agreed that a visit was a good idea and that the two of them should recommend to Nixon that, reported Percy, "he tell the American people how unfortunate and unnecessary the Watergate incident had been and how he truly regretted it."

The two senators met with Nixon and made this recommendation. But Nixon's response caught them by surprise. "The only thing wrong with that [recommendation]," Nixon firmly replied, "is that I know nothing about Watergate." Because of that alleged complete ignorance of the matter, Nixon was saying he saw no reason, nor need, for him to apologize.

Then came the tapes with Nixon's own words clearly showing his full knowledge of and deep involvement in Watergate - and how this Nixon answer to Goldwater and Percy was an ugly lie. A furious Goldwater later wrote in his memoirs, "President Nixon lied to his wife, his family, his friends, longtime colleagues in the US Congress, lifetime members of his own political party, the American people, and the world.... No lie is intelligent, but his were colossal stupidity because they involved the presidency of the United States.... It was the manipulation and misuse of the vast American storehouse of bigheartedness that history will condemn."

This recent call from Percy has brought me to thinking about our current presidency and what I see as a most relevant question: When is some outstanding Democrat going to speak out publicly about the cloud hanging over Mr. Clinton and urge him to tell the American people what his relationship with Monica Lewinsky was all about? We must remember that several months ago Clinton promised that he would very soon provide clarifying details. But he hasn't.

Many readers invariably become upset when I cite parallels between Clinton's problem and Watergate. To be sure, Nixon was involved in obstruction of justice in a coverup that brought great dishonor to his presidency.

But the question of whether a president lied under oath and also may have persuaded someone else to lie under oath - with the promise of a good job as a quid pro quo - is not a small one. A private citizen could face time in prison for doing precisely that.

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