WSJ baselessly compared Watergate, Clinton-era investigations

A June 2 Wall Street Journal editorial attempted to equate the Watergate scandal that resulted in the resignation of President Richard Nixon with the investigations of President Clinton. “One lesson we learned from the Nixon and Bill Clinton eras is that it is both difficult and painful to check a President, especially one abusing the Justice Department,” the editorial stated. While the Journal didn't specify which of the many fruitless investigations of Clinton it was referring to, a comparison between any of them and Watergate is baseless: More than 30 officials were convicted for criminal conduct in Watergate, while five separate official investigations of Whitewater resulted in five exonerations of the Clintons, and the countless other investigations of the president's private life, Vincent Foster's suicide, Filegate, Travelgate, and countless other faux scandals likewise failed to produce evidence of criminal wrongdoing by the Clintons.

The Watergate scandal began with a botched burglary in June 1972, but subsequent investigations by Congress, the Justice Department, and the news media revealed a much broader network of corruption and criminality. Prior to the burglary, Nixon aides had already placed wiretaps at Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate office complex. Ultimately, Nixon's closest political aides went to prison: Attorney General and director of the Committee for the Re-election of the President (CRP) John Mitchell; chief of staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman; top domestic affairs adviser John Ehrlichman; White House counsel John W. Dean III; and White House special counsel Charles W. Colson. CRP engaged in what Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein called “a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of President Nixon's re-election.” The campaign involved “following members of Democratic candidates' families and assembling dossiers on their personal lives; forging letters and distributing them under the candidates' letterheads; leaking false and manufactured items to the press; throwing campaign schedules into disarray; seizing confidential campaign files; and investigating the lives of dozens of Democratic campaign workers.” White House aides also carried out the burglary of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office and wiretapped news reporters who revealed information that the White House wanted kept secret. (Ellsberg had leaked the Pentagon Papers to Congress and the media.)

Nixon also abused executive branch agencies for political purposes: He urged the IRS to audit journalists and political opponents and instructed a deputy attorney general in the Justice Department's antitrust division not to file a brief opposing a merger involving a major campaign contributor, International Telephone and Telegraph Co. (ITT). Nixon's resignation followed the discovery of a White House recording of Nixon, one week after the Watergate burglary, approving a plan by Haldeman to use the CIA to thwart the FBI's investigation into the burglary.

By contrast, the Whitewater “scandal” revolved around allegations that Bill and/or Hillary Rodham Clinton acted improperly in connection with a 15-year-old land deal in which they lost just over $48,000. In contrast to the results of Watergate, the Clintons were exonerated by five separate investigations into Whitewater.

The Journal also misleadingly claimed that unlike the praise that Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein received for their revelations on Watergate, reporters who pursued Whitewater were “the targets of White House attacks.” In fact, Nixon targeted journalists aggressively with his infamous "enemies list." George Washington University journalism professor Mark Feldstein summarized Nixon's attacks on journalists in the August/September 2004 American Journalism Review:

The Post also faced down both public attacks and private intimidation from the Nixon administration. John Mitchell, Nixon's attorney general, warned Bernstein that his boss, Publisher Katharine Graham, was “gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer” as a result of his Watergate reporting. And Nixon himself privately threatened “damnable, damnable problems” for the Post when it came to getting its television station licenses renewed.

But here, too, the Post was not alone. The Nixon administration variously investigated, wiretapped and audited the income tax returns of numerous reporters. In all, more than 50 journalists appeared on a special White House “enemies list.” Nixon's otherwise pro-business Justice Department filed antitrust charges against all three broadcast networks. As Woodward reported a year after Nixon's resignation, Nixon himself allegedly ordered an aide to falsely smear syndicated columnist Jack Anderson as a homosexual, and two White House aides held a clandestine meeting to plot ways to poison the troublesome journalist. In many respects, reporters who investigated Nixon were less hunters than prey.

By contrast, in complaining about Clinton White House “attacks” on journalists, the Journal is apparently referring to a never-released report critiquing the work of Washington Post reporter Susan Schmidt. No wiretaps, no IRS audits -- just a critique of her published articles.

There was at least one noteworthy investigation of a reporter's personal life during the Clinton years: Associates of right-wing billionaire financier Richard Mellon Scaife hired a private investigator, Rex Armistead, to investigate CNN correspondent John Camp and his family in retaliation for a Camp report debunking allegations that Clinton was involved in drug-running in the Arkansas town of Mena. According to, “A copy of Armistead's report on Camp later found its way into the files of the House Banking Committee's [chaired by Republican Rep. Jim Leach (R-IA)] Mena investigation.”

The Journal's specific charge that both the Nixon and Clinton were guilty of “abusing the Justice Department” is similarly misleading. In what became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy William D. Ruckelshaus resigned rather than carry out Nixon's order to fire the Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, after Nixon refused to turn over his White House recordings, which Cox had subpoenaed. As noted above, the Nixon administration also used the Justice Department to harass news broadcasters and reward campaign contributors.

By contrast, Clinton actually requested that then-Attorney General Janet Reno appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Whitewater, albeit under substantial political pressure. Clinton also signed a reauthorization of the independent counsel law in June 1994 that transferred the Whitewater investigation from Justice Department special prosecutor Robert B. Fiske Jr. to a three-judge judge panel [Washington Post, 7/1/94], who appointed independent prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr. But when leaks from Starr's office began to harm Clinton, he did not fire Starr.

In addition, when discussing the long-term impact of Watergate on political journalism, the Journal lamented that “many in the press have developed a 'gotcha' model of reporting that always assumes the worst about public officials.” But during the 1990s, no media outlet better exemplified this approach than the Journal editorial page. Though investigations yielded no proof of wrongdoing by the Clintons, the Journal's daily attacks on the Clintons over Whitewater were enough to fill a series of six books titled A Journal Briefing: Whitewater. Reviewing one volume for the Columbia Journalism Review, founding editor James Boylan observed that the Journal's efforts were “directed not at Whitewater in any commonsense definition of the term, or at reform or amelioration, but at the discrediting of a president.” He continued:

The impression given by this meandering collection is that the Whitewater enterprise itself, which is never really explained comprehensively after the editorial “Whitewater: A Primer” of December 28, 1993, did not as such deeply engage the [Journal's] editorial mind. ... Whitewater ends up meaning, Humpty Dumpty style, just what the Journal chooses it to mean, neither more nor less.

This elasticity permits the Journal's editorialists to use Whitewater to concoct a strange, dark, near-criminal world of illicit connections, covert influence, and, in an almost puritan sense, sin.