CONASON: Comparisons to Watergate; A Fraud by Lazy Hacks

There are more than a few journalists who, suffering from premature senility or inadequate education, have no idea what Watergate was about.Comparisons between the petty scandals of the Clinton era and the great epic of Watergate are now so commonplace in the media that they constitute a massive fraud on the news-consuming public. The latest versions were appended to stories about Webster Hubbell's White House friends helping to obtain employment for the disgraced former Deputy Attorney General after his resignation in March 1994. Newspapers used the term "hush money" in connection with those events and published suggestions of a "deliberate plot to keep Hubbell quiet" and a "Watergate-style cover-up at the top levels of the White House."It is easy to understand why lots of journalists (not to mention lots of Republicans, who have their own reasons) are wishing and praying for a "Watergate-style cover-up." The real Watergate made some journalists rich and famous, and it was fun for almost everyone else. But that's no excuse for trying to peddle a fake. The main reason any hack tries to sell this sad substitute is that in America, the only history people don't forget is the history they never knew. In such a country, there are probably more than a few journalists who, suffering from premature senility or inadequate education, have no idea what Watergate was about, so they toss about historical comparisons because it sounds so cool.A "Watergate-style cover-up" involves cash in small denominations delivered in briefcases, laundry bags and airline bags, and dropped discreetly in hotel lobbies, airport lockers and telephone booths. A "Watergate-style cover-up" is performed by characters like Howard Hunt's wife, Dorothy Hunt, who blackmailed the White House on behalf of her bumbling spook husband, and Anthony Ulasewicz, the ex-cop and White House bagman with the funny Brooklyn accent. They must use code names like "John Ferguson" and "the Writer's Wife" and "the icebox" (where the hush money is kept).A "Watergate-style cover-up" demands the involvement of every top official from the Director of the F.B.I., to the Director of Central Intelligence, to the Attorney General and numerous deputies. It features taped chats like the one between Howard Hunt and White House aide Charles Colson -- do people remember these guys? -- on Nov. 13, 1972.That was when Mr. Hunt ominously demanded more payoffs: "After all, we're protecting the guys who were really responsible ... and, uh, surely, your cheapest commodity available is money ..." To which Mr. Colson (who has since found God), replied: "Um-hmm" and "Don't tell me any more ..." Most of all, a "Watergate-style cover-up" requires the President to say things on tape like what Richard Nixon urged a top aide to tell the Director of the F.B.I.: "Don't go any further into this case, period!"If this standard seems too high, consider that the above doesn't begin to reveal the riches of the real Watergate. The current substitutes -- Whitewater, Filegate, Travelgate, Asiagate and the rest -- are like a series of movie sequels churned out to mimic a blockbuster. They lack everything the original had in terms of script, actors and production values.Take the Hubbell story, pathetically christened "Hubbellgate" by the New York Post. Mr. Hubbell was a University of Arkansas football hero who fell in love with the homecoming queen and married her. She was the daughter of a rich man, which meant that Mr. Hubbell was constantly struggling to provide the material wealth her daddy expected of him. Though he joined the biggest law firm in Little Rock, Ark., and earned much respect and friendship, he ended up stealing from his clients and partners to make ends meet. Then his pal the President foolishly appointed him Deputy Attorney General. Rather quickly, Mr. Hubbell's embezzling was discovered by his former law partners. They told him he was caught, and he did the right thing by resigning. With the memory of Vincent Foster's suicide still painfully fresh, Mr. Hubbell's friends in the White House tried to help the disgraced lawyer find work. They gave jobs to his wife and son. Nine months later, he pleaded guilty to charges brought by the Whitewater independent counsel, agreed to cooperate and spent over 100 hours being interviewed by prosecutors. He did his time, but he didn't tell the prosecutors what they wanted to hear -- namely, anything implicating Bill and/or Hillary Clinton -- so now they whisper about "hush money" and threaten to re-indict him.As usual in the Clinton White House, bad mistakes were made. Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, in particular, who was the head of the Small Business Administration in 1994, shouldn't have asked business leaders who had interests before his agency to help Mr. Hubbell. The same goes for former Chief of Staff Mack McLarty, another Arkansan promoted far beyond his apparent competence. But there's no evidence that Mr. Hubbell threatened to testify against the Clintons or that he promised not to. The epithet "hush money" implies a knowing conspiracy that included Time Warner Inc.'s general counsel, Vernon Jordan, and even the Republican Mayor of Los Angeles, Richard Riordan, whose airport commission retained Mr. Hubbell as a consultant until three months before his guilty plea.If this is a "Watergate-style cover-up," then the watch that guy is selling on the street must be a Rolex. After all, he told you it was, didn't he?

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