This Isn’t Watergate,It’s Groundhog Day

Did someone forget to give the Republicans their medicine again? The White House produces 90 minutes of videotape of coffees attended by the President and his supporters, and suddenly the Republicans are hyped up and cackling about “Watergate” in the same manic fashion that has ended in disappointment so many times before. If you want to share in the excitement, make sure you don’t actually watch the tapes, which look and sound utterly innocuous and lack anything-even the “expletives deleted” of the old Nixon tapes-to relieve their excruciating dullness. Maybe something juicy will turn up on the next reel, or the next, but it seems unlikely.

In fact, the Clinton coffee tapes are likely to have the opposite effect from the tapes that were finally wrested from the grip of Nixon. In the latter case, what Americans heard was far worse than what they had expected; in the former, what they will hear and see seems considerably less sinister than what they have been led to expect. In other words, this still isn’t Watergate.

The coffee videotapes show the President doing his familiar grip-and-grin routine with supporters in the White House map room, over and over again, as if caught in some strange subplot from Groundhog Day . The sound quality is generally poor, but Mr. Clinton can be heard exchanging pleasantries with his guests, recalling smoothly the last time they met, or the first time they met, or the acquaintances they share. He makes chitchat about pop musicians and golf, and accepts the occasional gift of a book or a trinket. He doesn’t ask anyone for money or stick his hand into anybody’s pocket.

Even the briefly missing section of audio in a segment showing the President with the dubious Democratic fund-raisers John Huang and Pauline Kanchanalak on June 18, 1996, turned out to be disappointingly tame when it was retrieved a day later. Mr. Clinton was saying hello to them.

With nothing on the tapes themselves to indicate wrongdoing so far, the Republicans are reduced to complaining about the delay in production of the tapes. Senator Fred Thompson, the chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, is especially peeved, and perhaps he has a right to be angry. On second thought, Mr. Thompson ought to feel a bit grateful that the White House has once again botched the job and made itself look bad. If the White House Communications Agency had found the tapes as soon as they were requested in August and turned them over, the Tennessee Republican would not now have an excuse to suggest that his committee’s deadline be extended beyond Dec. 31.

But the comparison to Watergate is strenuously overdrawn, to say the least. Let’s leave aside what was actually uttered on the tapes secretly made by Nixon, such as discussions of payoffs to the Watergate burglars and orders to the F.B.I. to curtail its investigation. The bumbling of the Clinton White House in its failure to produce tapes that show no wrongdoing is in no way similar to the obstruction by the Nixon White House of access to tapes that proved guilt.

In the case of the Watergate tapes, the time between the discovery of their existence and the moment that they finally began to be released was not eight weeks, but more than a year. Alexander Butterfield, an Air Force colonel who had resigned from Nixon’s staff, first told Senate investigators about the tapes on July 13, 1973. When the late Senator Sam Ervin asked that the tapes be turned over, Nixon categorically refused, citing confidentiality and executive privilege. What ensued was a legal and political battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court in July 1974. Indeed, most of the Watergate tapes were withheld doggedly by Nixon until the very end, and beyond: His lawyers continued to fight against their release for nearly three decades, and his estate continued to do so even after his death.

Given what was on the tapes, Nixon’s reluctance to release them was understandable. There was considerable discussion about burning them rather than handing them over, a course of action that apparently was urged by the likes of Patrick Buchanan and Henry Kissinger. Only the knowledge that such action would have led instantly to impeachment kept the match from being struck.

That was because on the Watergate tapes, prosecutors and members of Congress knew what they were looking for, and Nixon knew, too. What are the Republicans hoping to see on the coffee tapes-a shakedown? Do they think Bill Clinton and Harold Ickes would have arranged for such a moment to be videotaped in front of a couple dozen witnesses?

It is true, as Senator Thompson fumed, that the explanation of incompetence is wearing thin in this White House. But what other explanation is there? So far, there is no evidence of obstruction of justice. In fact, the delay in producing the tapes has only enraged Attorney General Janet Reno, and may embarrass her into appointing an independent counsel. That surely is not what the President and his aides wanted.

This Isn’t Watergate,It’s Groundhog Day