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The good old days of Watergate

The gods are angry with Sen. Fred Thompson. How else can we explain the arrival of a rich new batch of Nixon Watergate tapes at the very moment Thompson's own investigation of dirty political money is fizzling out?

The new Nixon tapes present incontrovertible evidence of a presidency corrupted by money. Thompson was never able to nail President Clinton so conclusively.

Once, before reality set in, some thought Thompson's investigation might make him a presidential candidate. It was a naive idea because it ignored the facts of Washington life.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans are ready to abandon the tradition of peddling themselves for the millions needed for TV campaign ads. Thompson's investigation threatened that tradition. Suppose it upset the public by exposing the vastness of the political meat market. An upset public can produce results intolerable to politicians, even though most detest the money chase.

Few like selling themselves for campaign money. It is vexatious, time-consuming, exhausting, humiliating and embarrassing, but it is what they have learned to do because _ in the whining old Washington phrase _ they all do it.

Nasty though it be, the system has worked for them. Change it, and who knows what nightmare might ensue?

Thompson surely knew this when he took on the investigation, but the prospect of televised hearings can be catnip to the canniest politician if, like Thompson, he has caught the presidential itch.

The goals of the big mules in the White House and the GOP had nothing to do with cleaning out the stable. Republicans simply wanted the committee to do to President Clinton what another Senate committee had once done to President Nixon.

Thompson was chief Republican counsel on that earlier committee. He had a front-row seat at the ruining of Richard Nixon. Presumably he knew how such things were done.

Democrats simply wanted to save Clinton's skin by "stonewalling," which is Washingtonspeak for refusing to turn over evidence investigators need to nail the quarry. You treat them with contempt and hope you can get away with it.

Stonewalling is the traditional White House way of dealing with a truculent Congress, and it almost always succeeds. It succeeded for the Reagan White House in the Iran-Contra affair. Now it has succeeded for Clinton.

The only occasion in living memory when it failed was during the Watergate investigation. Of course, Watergate had a president with a genius for self-destruction.

Clinton's genius is for self-preservation. Look: What starts as an investigation aimed at ruining Clinton ends up with Vice President Al Gore being mutilated and Clinton's popularity soaring.

For Republicans, the Thompson exercise yielded a few gains. The tales of Democrats taking Asian money hint at sinister proclivities to which Republicans can point with horror. Stories of Gore reaping money among the Buddhists can be recalled with shock and dismay if Gore runs for president.

What didn't happen was more interesting than what did: Republicans escaped nasty publicity explaining why they collect so much more money than Democrats from American business. The president was not nailed. The good old rotten money system was not changed.

Thompson's presidential hopes were probably lowered a bit. Fortunately, he did not outrage his Republican colleagues who like things the way they are, for they would surely poison his well if he had.

As the air was hissing out of the tire, the ever-dependable Nixon came onstage again as if to mock Thompson's failed attempt to nail a president. A new book appears full of previously unpublished Nixon tapes. It has the gamy flavor we have come to expect.

Here is Nixon selling ambassadorships at $250,000 per embassy. Now he talks about shaking down business and labor for millions. A Greek businessman will supply $1-million for hush money to Watergate burglars if Nixon will keep a certain ambassador in Athens. "Great. I'm just delighted," Nixon says.

Studying the old master of duplicity, Thompson must be nostalgic for the good old Watergate days when investigators were blessed with presidents who nailed themselves.

New York Times News Service