Why Whitewater Isn't Watergate

There is no evidence of criminality in Whitewater -- but that doesn't mean it's trivial

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Watergate. Whitewater. Both contain the letters w-a-t-e-r. Adopt the fashion of attaching the suffix -gate to any scandal whatsoever (remember Ice Cream- Gate? Doublebillingsgate? never mind, nobody else does either) and the second becomes Whitewatergate, identical to the first except for an extraneous syllable. But do the two share any other similarities?

Some, certainly, and not altogether superficial ones. Both concern allegations of impropriety directed at a President of the United States (though only Whitewater also involves the First Lady; one would have to look very long through the mountain of Watergate clippings before coming across even a glancing mention of Pat Nixon). Both triggered probes by a special counsel, and both may yet lead to congressional investigations. Both touched off partisan howling for a President's head, and both featured official defenses of said President by aides who obviously had next to no knowledge of what had happened. George Stephanopoulos and Ron Ziegler might equally resent that comparison, but there it is.

But what, if anything, is really similar? Right now, an honest answer would have to be: We don't know. The identity of "Deep Throat" is one of the few Watergate mysteries left. We know not only the details of the cover-up but what it was that was covered up. In contrast, probers into Whitewater have been sorely puzzled by the disparity between the intensity of White House efforts to obfuscate the matter and what can be discovered so far about what might have been obfuscated. So what if the failed Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan really was being operated as what Republican Congressman Jim Leach calls a "private piggy bank" for Arkansas politicians, including the then Governor? So what if Bill and Hillary Clinton did in fact take income-tax deductions to which they were not entitled, and underpaid their personal taxes? Admitting as much no doubt would be embarrassing. Avoiding that embarrassment, however, is so far from being worth all the trouble that the Clinton White House is in now as to stir suspicion that there must be something more waiting to be unearthed.

This much, however, can be said. Whitewater has a very, very long way to go before it can be considered within 16 miles of being equal in gravity to Watergate. Memories are dimming. People voted in 1992 who were not yet born when the Watergate break-in occurred 20 years earlier, or even when President Nixon resigned in 1974. But it is worth recalling for one thing that "Watergate" pointed to a whole pattern of activity at the top of the government that former (later jailed) Attorney General John Mitchell referred to as the "White House horror stories." The rifling of the safe in the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist, the creation of the plumbers' unit, the "dirty tricks" in the 1972 campaign, the surveillance of anti-Vietnam War protesters, the "enemies list" -- these things had only a peripheral relationship, if that, to the burglary of Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex, but they were part of a pattern of dictatorial and in some cases criminal behavior that has not found even alleged parallels in the Clinton White House.

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