Forgiveness and the Presidential Standard

On a warm June night 26 years ago, five men were arrested at the Watergate complex in Washington for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters, touching off a series of events that led to the resignation of the 37th president. Today, the 42nd president faces allegations of criminal wrongdoing, including the very charge that destroyed Richard Nixon's presidency: obstruction of justice.

Though Nixon died in 1994, before Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones, and Johnny Chung became household names, he had seen enough of the Whitewater scandal and the Clintons' stonewalling response to it that he was compelled to ask: "Didn't anyone learn anything from Watergate?"

It was inconceivable to Nixon that the same political mistakes and ethical lapses could be made by people who had self-righteously condemned those of Nixon and his administration - people such as Hillary Rodham Clinton, who served as counsel to the House Watergate Committee. Nixon could not have predicted that the tactics that failed to protect his presidency seem to have worked, at least until last week, for Mr. Clinton.

Buoyed by a powerhouse economy and relative peace at home and abroad, Clinton has refused to answer questions - even before the grand jury - and has admitted to lying to his family and the country for seven months about his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky without suffering a precipitous drop in his approval ratings.

As the investigations move forward, however, there is no guarantee that this approach will continue to be effective. Like Nixon before him, Clinton believes that he doesn't owe the American people or the independent counsel a full explanation, despite the fact that he, like Nixon, promised early on to cooperate fully with investigators. Like Nixon, he is playing the odds that the evidence will be insufficient to prove obstruction of justice, at least while he is in office. And like Nixon, he is trying desperately to project strength and capability - by ordering retaliatory military strikes against terrorist targets abroad - even as scandal consumes him at home.

Both men share additional striking similarities: remarkable innate intelligence, prodigious talents, and a seeming destiny for the presidency. And yet, at the height of their political and personal achievement, they self-destructed. The unanswered question is this: If there is compelling evidence to suggest that Clinton committed serious crimes, will he be held as accountable as Nixon had been?

It was often said after Watergate that "the system worked," that the rule of law reigned supreme. Nixon's fate was touted as a fulfillment of the Founders' expectation that the United States would be governed by laws and that the corrective process would be activated to remove those who broke the laws they were sworn to uphold.

This is one of the most profound virtues of self-government, and Clinton, like Nixon, must not be allowed to corrupt it. If it is found that Clinton committed any "high crimes and misdemeanors," the impeachment process must begin. Every president - regardless of party - must be held to the same high standard, and Congress - regardless of shifting social mores - must apply that standard evenly to every president.

During a conversation I had with Nixon about Watergate on July 1, 1991, I asked him if he thought the American people were forgiving.

"Yes, they are," he replied, "but only if you level with them from the beginning. If you keep things from them or otherwise conceal the truth or stonewall ... then there's no way ... they are going to let you get away with it. No way. And they shouldn't, because there has been wrongdoing. Now don't get me wrong - I've been around politics for a long time and it's a dirty and cynical business.... But to express shock over one situation and not another is just not right."

Nixon's point was that the conduct of individual presidents should not be subject to double standards. When newly elected presidents place one hand on a Bible, raise their other hand, and swear to faithfully execute the laws of the land, we trust them to mean it. If they break even one of those laws, they must be held accountable. We can't begin to make exceptions based on strong economic conditions or greater societal acceptance of transgressions. To do so would be both unfair to those in the past who have suffered the consequences of their actions and a kind of hypocrisy that a democracy cannot afford. This scandal should serve as a reminder that the integrity of our system of self-government depends upon the people requiring a consistent standard of conduct from all of our presidents, with the same consequences to follow should they fail to meet it.

* Monica Crowley, a political analyst for the Fox News Channel, served as foreign policy assistant to former President Richard Nixon from 1990 to his death in 1994. She is the author of 'Nixon in Winter' (Random House, 1998).

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