Watergate Rewind: History as Farce

The release of the Webster Hubbell prison tapes offered Republicans a thrilling but terribly brief opportunity to relive Watergate in reverse. Their urge to draw comparisons between current events and the scandal that devastated their party seems almost pathological sometimes, and the suffering this is causing them should not be underestimated. As usual, the most poignant clinical case is that of William Safire.

Working off the heavily edited Hubbell tape transcripts provided by Representative Dan Burton, Republican of Indiana, the New York Times columnist filed another of his “Hillary Clinton is a crook” dispatches for the May 4 edition. The conclusions he drew from those transcripts displayed Mr. Safire at his most tendentious. For instance, Mr. Safire suggests that if Mr. Hubbell had filed a counterclaim against his former partners at the Rose Law Firm–the victims, including Mrs. Clinton, of the embezzling that sent him to jail–that would somehow lead him to “sing” about billing records and sham land transactions. He then veers off into another favorite theme, the “Asian connection,” involving payments from Indonesian businessman James Riady to Mr. Hubbell during the months before he pled guilty.

So imagine Mr. Safire’s mortification when he picked up The Times that Monday morning and found a news story at the top of page 1 about Mr. Burton’s partisan scissor-work on the Hubbell tapes. Any columnist can fall behind breaking news–as I know all too well–but that isn’t what’s interesting about the Safire slip-up.

Tapes are always a sore subject with the old Nixon crowd. Their recurring fantasy is that someday a set of incriminating tapes will turn up to ruin the Clintons just as the White House tapes destroyed Richard Nixon, a theme treated fulsomely in American Spectator editor R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr.’s fictional The Impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton last year. But once again their daydream pushes them through the looking glass and into a nightmare. In this instance, it is Mr. Burton whose behavior seems Nixonian, with suspicious omissions and bogus interpretations of the transcripts. Remember the 18 1/2-minute gap in the Watergate tapes?

Actually, Mr. Safire must have known about this little problem a day earlier, because NBC’s Tim Russert, no Clinton defender, had exposed the tape fraud on Meet the Press , a broadcast often graced by Mr. Safire himself. But that couldn’t have made reading about it in his own paper, only pages away from his own column, any easier.

Where Mr. Safire had found evidence of Mrs. Clinton’s vulnerability to damning testimony by Mr. Hubbell, the more complete tape released by Representative Henry Waxman, Democrat of California, suggested the opposite. Moments after the felon’s wife, Suzanna Hubbell, complains about a “squeeze play” from White House aide Marsha Scott, Mr. Hubbell responds: “O.K., Hillary’s not, Hillary isn’t, the only thing is people say why didn’t she know what was going on. And I wish she never paid any attention to what was going on in the firm. That’s the gospel truth. She just had no idea what was going on. She didn’t participate in any of this.”

What is also clear from the fuller context is the meaning of Mr. Hubbell’s remark in the same conversation, “So I need to roll over one more time.” He is not speaking about cooperation with the Whitewater independent counsel, an issue that was settled more than a year before the tape was made. The subject instead is whether Mr. Hubbell should file a countersuit against the former partners at Rose who helped send him away, and whether such litigation over the firm’s billing practices would embarrass Mrs. Clinton. Mr. Hubbell’s view was that it would not, but he probably didn’t have much of a case, anyway.

As he confesses in his recent book Friends in High Places , he was just a crook who ripped off his partners and clients. The release of his conversations with his wife and attorneys is deplorable and the distortions by Mr. Burton are worse, but Mr. Hubbell doesn’t make a very appealing victim.

No, the victim here is Mrs. Clinton, who was cleared of wrongdoing in Whitewater two years ago by the Resolution Trust Corporation. Now, as the Whitewater grand jury in Little Rock, Ark., was set to expire, Mr. Burton tried to smear her by handing out a set of phony tape transcripts. Whatever the remaining Hubbell transcripts may hold is already known to independent counsel Kenneth Starr, and after all the leaks and innuendo, he has allowed the grand jury to disband without indicting her.

The Nixon crowd always argued that Watergate was a vengeful inquisition, that the methods used to remove Nixon were excessive and that the Presidency was damaged as a result. They were entirely wrong about all that, but their warnings do seem eerily accurate today. Driven by their urge to get the Clintons, they enact a parody of their own warped memories. They have become what they beheld a quarter-century ago, and it isn’t a pretty sight.

Watergate Rewind: History as Farce