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Tuesday, October 6, 1998 Published at 08:36 GMT 09:36 UK

Analysis: Not quite Watergate

Parallels to Nixon come easy but are they valid?

By Jon Leyne in Washington

Two years into his second term, the president is in deep trouble with Congress. A damaging tape is published that shows that he has been less than honest. His critics seize on it as evidence of a long-term pattern of abuse of power.

The constitution's rarely invoked provisions for impeachment are dusted off. Despite winning re-election by a decisive margin, the president's political survival hangs by a thread.

Bill Clinton or Richard Nixon? Slick Willy or Tricky Dick? The parallels are not just intriguing, they are central to the story of President Clinton's fight to remain in power.

When the Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr produced his report on the Lewinsky scandal he set out the charges against President Clinton in a way deliberately intended to stir the ghost of Watergate.

High on the list was obstruction of justice - the very accusation levelled against President Nixon in the first article of impeachment passed by the House Judiciary Committee in 1974.

Throughout the Starr report, the underlying charge against the President is of abuse of power - an echo of the second article of impeachment passed in 1974.

"People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I am not a crook," said Mr Nixon 24 years ago - a sound-bite every bit as memorable and damaging as "I did not have sex with that woman..."

President Clinton has been desperate to avoid being seen as another Nixon, using the machinery of power to avoid justice - hence his, perhaps disastrous, decision not to challenge the subpoena calling on him to appear before the Grand Jury.

Even some of the actors are the same. A certain Trent Lott, now Republican leader in the Senate, was in Congress, and voted against impeaching Nixon. Bill Cohen, now Defence Secretary, was another key Republican in Congress.

And a young 26-year-old lawyer just out of Yale Law School was part of the legal team advising the House Judiciary Committee - a certain Hillary Rodham.

Parallels may be misleading

In the early 70s a relentless and high-minded press used the best techniques of journalistic doggedness to unearth the facts. Now the Washington media compete with each other only over how fast they can publish the latest leak or spin.

But however much Kenneth Starr may suggest otherwise, the alleged crimes are of a different order.

The strongest charge against Mr Clinton is that he perjured himself in a civil law suit, that was subsequently dismissed. Before Richard Nixon left office he had tried to employ much of the machinery of government to cover up the crime of Watergate.

When the House Judiciary Committee justified its recent decision to spin out the impeachment process beyond the mid-term Congressional elections in November, the chairman, Henry Hyde, cited the precedent of Watergate.

But politics are different now from 24 years ago. President Nixon's fate was effectively sealed when members of his own party crossed the floor to vote in favour of impeachment - among them Senator Bill Cohen. Throughout the current process the House of Representatives has been split strictly down party lines. Every decision has been taken according to straight impeachment proceedings.

In the meantime, the old sages in Washington are wringing their hands. After the heroics of Watergate, this has devolved into a cheap political fist-fight, in which there will be no winners in the long term.

But it is still fun to play the comparison game. In 1974, after the most damaging Watergate tapes were released, the veteran Democrat Tip O'Neill pronounced that confession was good for the soul, "it doesn't save the body." Does that sound familiar?

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