The passing of Richard Milhous Nixon brings a big chill to political junkies who came of age in the '70s. What a thrill to be an undergraduate by day, Watergate addict by night! I recall a friend asking me early in 1973, when White House heads were just starting to roll: Do you think they'll get Nixon's? Impossible. He's the president.
Well, before it was over, the president's and vice president's heads had been sliced and diced. What an exquisite scandal it was, filled with dirty tricks and enemies lists and obstructions of justice and expletives deleted. It seemed to me that this was democracy at its finest hour, uncovering the filthy linen that the emperor would just as soon have burned. The people triumph! And what a glorious moment for the Fourth Estate. They basked in the glow that Jefferson had cast for them, as a free society's only natural predator upon the political class.
But alas. The press has now been cleansed by the magical healing powers of Whitewater and has decided to forsake the grubby and sleaze-happy masses, elevating itself to more lofty matters, "moving on with the nation's business." That the news media should be in collective denial over Whitewater is a cold shower to those of us who took Watergate seriously. We thought it was abuse of power that was wrong. We now see it is abuse of Republican power.
The mainstream media have spun through so many renditions of scandal avoidance that the Clinton administration should be investigated to determine if Bill and Hillary are actually paying those troublesome Social Security employment taxes for the Washington press corps. If they are skating here, too, the revenuers deserve lawful compensation for at least six press tunes:
They're attacking Hillary; insecure men just can't deal with strong women. Strong or weak, when Mrs. Clinton's law firm represents the Arkansas high and mighty while Mr. Clinton taxes and regulates them, it looks like a bribe-laundering scheme for the governor. This Rose doesn't pass the smell test.
Arkansas state troopers are shady characters; Arkansas bleached blondes are bimbos. Somehow the credibility of the hicks who outed Playboy Billy instantly became the story. And poor Gennifer Flowers. Her revelations only prompted the press to ask: What self-respecting journalist would get his leads from a tabloid? This sort of drive-by character assassination seems to tickle the press corps, when it isn't reproaching itself for not respecting the Clintons' assumption of innocence.
The Clintons are so stupid for the way they're handling this thing. Only if you assume they aren't guilty of anything. For weeks the press beat this dead horse. One wonders: When did stonewalling turn into a tactical error?
Republicans like Alfonse D'Amato are hypocrites. Even Al Franken, the quasi-comedy act at this year's White House correspondents' dinner, dismissed Whitewater with a tsk, tsk, Al D'Amato. Sound a little like, "it didn't start with Watergate"? Yeah, that was Nixon's line—only Nixon actually had to come up with it himself.
Whitewater is a terrible distraction: How can you talk about what happened in Little Rock 15 years ago when 37 million don't have health care? Tricky Dick could have seen this bet—and doubled it. What's a little third-rate burglary when 100 million Indochinese lives are on the line? And old Spiro T. Agnew could have used some statute-of-limitations help on a measly $2,500 bribe (or two) from before he ever became vice president. (And if Spiro had known about "Red" Bone's commodity-market magic, he would have been president of the United States.)
Whitewater doesn't even compare to Watergate. Talk about killing the investigative spirit. Watergate didn't compare to Watergate before the facts were uncovered. And the real key to unlocking that scandal was the discovery during congressional hearings of Nixon's famous tape recordings—an investigative tool so far avoided in Whitewater.
I remember the attack-dog press in its heyday, when reporters chased Republicans up a tree, barking like bloodhounds. When scandal was in the air, they didn't do 90-minute Nightline specials wondering whether the press was being too tough on the politicians. They pounded on the vaunted Credibility Gap, howled over each appearance of impropriety, and fixed on "the public's right to know" as their guiding star.
Nowadays, Newsweek's Eleanor Clift, in an "interview" with the First Lady, asks the following hardball question: "So if there was nothing wrong, why were you so resistant to making records public? My theory is that you have a thing about privacy." (Six of Clift's 10 "questions" do not end with question marks.)
Since the press now considers coverage of White House ethics to be a costly diversion, it has become the responsibility of news editors to delineate which set of facts the public should be allowed to consider. The Times they are a-changin'.
I say: Bring back Nixon. At least then the battle lines were clear, and we had the press in our foxhole.
Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.