Monday, June 17, was the 24th anniversary of the break-in of Democratic National Committee headquarters at Washington's Watergate Hotel. It was an event that led to the discovery of much more wrongdoing in the Nixon administration and the first resignation of a president.
Richard Nixon's special counsel, Charles Colson, called to ask me if I remembered what got him a one- to three-year prison sentence. "Something about Daniel Ellsberg's stealing of the Pentagon Papers and your involvement with obtaining records from his psychiatrist's office?"
"And what else?" asked Mr. Colson.
"There was something about files," I said.
"FBI files," reminded Mr. Colson. "They got me for taking one FBI file and giving it to a reporter. [Special Prosecutor] Leon Jaworski said he'd been looking for a way to stop this practice, which he called an abuse of power."
It was because of this incident that Congress passed the Privacy Act, which requires a legitimate public purpose for anyone seeking FBI files. If there is no such purpose, a crime has been committed. Former Bush Deputy Chief of Staff James Cicconi called explanations by the Clinton White House for obtaining more than 400 FBI files "pretty much a crock."
Mr. Colson told me, "I'm skeptical [about the White House explanations]. The people involved are highly political, and I just know how people at this level think, from having been in that seat. If I had any dirt on our political opponents, I would use it. It's just human nature."
And what does he think is going on inside this White House?
Said Mr. Colson, "During the dark days of Watergate, we would have meetings where grown men would get very sweaty palms. [Press secretary] Ron Ziegler would be told to go to the press room and dismiss Watergate as a third-rate burglary and pure politics, precisely what is happening now in Whitewater. In those days, you put on the bravest face you could, but inside there was panic. I suspect there's a lot of panic going on right now."
Mr. Colson is troubled by the lack of what he calls "moral outrage" over the FBI files. "People ought to be marching in the streets over that. It's really frightening." He calls what the White House operatives did "brazen and shameless. These guys have chutzpah."
Various White House spokespeople and President Clinton himself have pooh-poohed the acquisition of the FBI files, most of them on Republicans who worked for the Reagan and Bush administrations. They blame, as they do so frequently, "inexperienced" bureaucrats who made an honest mistake. But these were no bureaucrats. The two men associated with obtaining the FBI files, Craig Livingstone and Anthony Marceca, are experienced Democratic political operatives.
Now that Attorney General Janet Reno has added to the administration's burden by authorizing an FBI investigation into the whereabouts and route traveled by the bureau's own files, we're going to need a scorecard to keep up with the growing list of incidents of alleged unethical behavior in an administration that promised to be more honest than any other. When people spend more time trying to persuade us they are honorable, rather than living honorably, you can conclude their ethics are little more than window dressing.
The question is whether the public will awaken to the fact that the Clintons and their supporters are engaged in the biggest game of deception since snake oil snookered another generation with promises of easy cures for their ailments.
A U.S. News & World Report survey has found that more than two-thirds of the public thinks character is less important than a person's position on issues. If so, we will get the leadership we deserve. Whom we elect in November will tell us more about our national character than it will the character of the person we elect (or reelect). Charles Colson is worried that too many of us aren't worried about the direction in which we're headed-as reflected by the muted outcry over "Filegate."
© 1996, Los Angeles Times Syndicate