It’s not Watergate, it’s Whitewater

By Nicholas Wapshott
May 21, 2013

The trifecta of scandals — Benghazi, the IRS and snooping on journalists — that has broken upon the heads of the Obama administration is as bad as Watergate. No it isn’t, says Bob Woodward, whose reputation was made by doggedly pursuing the source of a burglary of the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate Hotel. No it isn’t, says Carl Bernstein, who shares the bragging rights for toppling President Richard Nixon. Oh yes it is, says Peggy Noonan, the Republicans’ mother superior, writing, “We are in the midst of the worst Washington scandal since Watergate.”

Really? How about the Iran-Contra scandal in 1986 that besmirched the honesty of President Ronald Reagan, for whom Noonan used to write speeches? Perhaps she penned Reagan’s first denial, “We did not — repeat — did not trade weapons or anything else for hostages, nor will we,” or maybe his amnesiac mea culpa four months later, “I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.” Strange the tricks age plays on the memory. And I am not talking about Reagan.

If you were a precocious five-year-old at the time, you would have to be 32 to recall the Iran-Contra scandal, in which, with or without Reagan’s say-so, administration officials, in defiance of Congress’s clearly stated wishes, secretly sold weapons to America’s perennial enemy, the terrorist state of Iran, then passed the proceeds to Nicaraguan insurgents. Even if you were the smartest kid you would have to be over 41 to remember Watergate and, in President Gerald Ford’s words, the “long national nightmare” that led to Nixon’s resignation ahead of certain impeachment.

Unless investigations prove that President Barack Obama’s actions or inactions led to the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi, or that he directed the Justice Department to subpoena the phone records of 20 AP reporters or that he directed the IRS to investigate Tea Party groups, the current scandals are not Watergate, or even Iran-Contra.

That is not to say that the three events currently under scrutiny are not troubling. Four Americans were killed in the fog of war surrounding Benghazi, and if such pointless deaths are to be prevented in the future we need to know exactly what happened. Determining who won the talking-points battle between the CIA and State is not that investigation.

If the White House or any party of the Administration directed tax inspectors to target Tea Party groups for special examination because of their conservative/libertarian beliefs, that, too, would be a scandal. It doesn’t seem that way. When it comes to conspiracy or incompetence, I’ll bet on incompetence every time.

The IRS inspector general’s report said 298 political groups received special scrutiny. Of those, only 96 – about a third — were Tea Party groups. And the only group so far to have their eligibility for tax-free status rejected is the Maine chapter of Emerge America that trains Democratic women to run for office. The White House has asked the newly appointed IRS chief to investigate and bring to account those culpable. The sooner that investigation is completed, the sooner we can move on.

If the White House had anything to do with the irregular way in which phone records of 20 AP reporters were seized, we need to know. All administrations dislike leaks, and all say they will find out how they happened. In this case, however, citing that catch-all pretext “national security,” the Justice Department went in all guns blazing. Why the overkill? Why abandon the traditional legal means of gathering evidence? We need answers.

If the Republicans on the Hill were more concerned about finding the truth than sensational speculation and unfounded innuendo we would find out answers much quicker. But the GOP is involved in displacement activity. Since the mid-terms of 2010 they have mostly given up legislating, saying government is already too big and that their idleness will contribute to its demise. Now they think they have found the perfect excuse to switch from not passing laws to what they do best, grandstanding. The problem is, it is so evidently partisan, self-serving busywork that few middle-ground voters are paying attention.

The latest Pew poll shows that all except the most avid Fox News gawpers are largely unmoved by Benghazi and that since the recent congressional hearings the numbers taking notice have actually decreased. Those who think the administration has been dishonest are Republicans; those who think it honest are Democrats. I’m shocked. Benghazi continues to be a bore to most people and the further into the weeds congressmen wade, the less likely they are to change voters’ minds.

A CNN/ORC poll discovered a similar response to the IRS scandal. While 85 percent thought the subject important and 71 percent found the IRS agents’ behavior unacceptable, 61 percent thought Obama had been honest in his account of the matter and 55 percent said the IRS was acting on its own.

Although 54 percent said they did not think Republicans were overreacting, 42 percent thought they were. Even the 37 percent who believe, without evidence, that the White House ordered the IRS to target conservative/libertarian groups is 8 points less than the 45 percent who disapprove in general of the way the president is handling his job. Even the choir doesn’t seem to believe the preacher.

An overwhelming 87 percent of voters said the raid on the AP reporters’ phone records was an important issue and 52 percent said they thought the Justice Department’s action was unacceptable. That is not the whole story. The pollsters reminded respondents Justice was investigating who leaked anti-terrorism efforts, which is why, perhaps, a full 43 percent thought Justice’s blundering approach was acceptable.

One Republican who thinks his party is overreaching is the Washington Post’s tame conservative Charles Krauthammer, whose recent column opened with: “Note to GOP re Benghazi: Stop calling it Watergate, Iran-Contra, bigger than both, etc.” because “overhyping will only diminish the importance of the scandal if it doesn’t meet presidency-breaking standards,” and “focusing on the political effects simply plays into the hands of Democrats desperately claiming that this is nothing but partisan politics.” He then spoiled his argument by spending the next 700-odd words going round in Benghazi circles, but no matter.

I have suggested before that if Republicans are to be a governing party ready to take back the White House, rather than a protest movement destined for permanent opposition, they should concentrate on kitchen-table issues that mean something to the average American. Instead they hope against hope they have tapped a scandal that will topple the president. This is not Watergate, it is Whitewater, the festering accusation by opponents of Bill and Hillary Clinton that they had been up to mischief when investing in a housing development in Arkansas, back before he won the presidency twice. And well before Hillary looked a good bet to be the next president.

President Clinton considers one of his biggest mistakes was not whatever he got up to with Monica Lewinsky in the closet off the Oval Office but his appointment of a special prosecutor to clear his name in the Whitewater business who ended up snooping in the bedroom. That is why, whether it is the best course or not, Obama will not be appointing a special prosecutor to look into Benghazi, the IRS, or the Justice Department. Having seen his Democratic predecessor and the nation’s government frozen in inaction through a long-running and vindictive partisan investigation, the president is not going to sacrifice his second term in the same way.

So, is all the Republican bluff, faux indignation and dramatic calling of hearings merely to taint Hillary Clinton’s presidential chances in 2016? Maybe. Though it would be the first time many of them have stopped to think beyond the end of next week.

Nicholas Wapshott is the author of “Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics.” Read extracts here.

PHOTO: Members of the audience listen as Gregory Hicks, foreign service officer and former deputy chief of mission/charge d’affairs in Libya at the State Department, testifies before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on “Benghazi: Exposing Failure and Recognizing Courage” on Capitol Hill in Washington May 8, 2013. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

2 comments

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It is curious how many opinion writers sooner or later reveal their faith, or hope, that the American people will be too dumb or lazy to hold their government accountable. (At least when a Democrat is in power.) Essentially, Nicholas suggests that the GOP will fail to win elections because his polling data indicates that people just don’t care about the IRS, Benghazi or the AP subpoenas. Or that they care but, oddly, don’t think its anyone’s fault. Well, polls are a dime a dozen and he might want to look at a few others.

Does he counsel that the GOP just “move-on” on Benghazi and the late Ambassador Stevens and his murdered staff the way the Left has abandoned the story of Travon Martin? If one story no longer makes the beast salivate, find the next one? No matter what anyone says, that is what the media do. And political Washington follows the media like pilot fish follow a shark.

The point for thoughtful readers is that neither the politicians nor the media should be trusted. Their power should be as circumscribed as we can make it. Neither the media, nor the political class are honest. They will lie and steal. They are dim witted and lazy. The message is that each party is no better than a necessary evil most of the time. Their are differences in important details but they are still details.

If this is true (and it might not be), then we should expect incompetence and corruption. We should assume the IRS is being used as a political tool even when there is no public scandal. We should assume that because it is there to be used.

We should assume that nobody in the government would think that the day of September 11th in any year will be a big deal in Arab lands and that Americans are more likely to be killed on that date. Bureaucrats are inattentive.

We should expect that our political titans will, in the end, do less good and make more excuses than the average, responsible, non-celebrity wife, husband, mom, dad, employee.

History shows that ambition puts every human vice on steroids. Vanity and self-regard cause more blindness than glaucoma.

Most of the government business on America is done with State or local officials and at that level, public accountability is easier. A diminished Federal government is inevitable for the next 30 years. Perhaps families and individuals will assume the responsibilities government has claimed but failed to discharge.

Even today, the United States is not a nation in crisis so much as a nation in which the reality of incompetent national government stands revealed. Neither Barack Obama nor any successor will solve the problems of the human condition. That’s why they hire press secretaries. But ordinary people in this country have seen the truth and have it in their power manage their individual destinies.

That, more than anything in Washington, is a cause for celebration.

Posted by lordbaltimore | Report as abusive

You know, as I look at the comments on other articles, I think the internet wasn’t such a great idea unless and until the human brain improves and until human beings gain the ability to express feelings (on screen). It seems that this level of abstraction and alienation guarantees that no one will appreciate and no one will accept and consider those feelings. Briefly, the internet diminishes us all. Promises to the contrary.

Posted by lordbaltimore | Report as abusive