Twenty-four years ago, when President Nixon did everything in his power to ride out the mounting threat of impeachment, he counted on his strongest defenders to back him to the end. Charles E. Wiggins did his best. For month upon month, the California Republican virtually led Nixon's supporters on the House Judiciary Committee.
Yet on Aug. 5, 1974, after Nixon acknowledged he had lied about his personal role in the Watergate cover-up, even Wiggins had heard enough. With a pained expression on his face, he read a two-page statement explaining why he now was in favor of Nixon's impeachment.
And then he added:
"Any competent counsel could mount a principled defense before the Bar of the Senate which might avoid the conviction of the president.
"Even a successful defense would leave the nation terribly divided and the capacity of the president to lead fatally weakened."
Therefore, Wiggins announced, he was ready to vote for impeachment on Article 1, alleging obstruction of justice.
He said, "I am prepared to conclude that the magnificent career of public service of Richard Nixon must be terminated involuntarily."
Three days later, Nixon volunteered.
Bill Clinton is now in Nixon's shoes, and they are really beginning to squeeze. To salvage his career and his legacy, Clinton must not only stave off his foes but hang onto his friends, friends who have stood by his side and scoffed at his scandals as nothing more than a man who got caught with his pants down.
This being an election year for a number of those friends, Clinton is trying to avoid becoming America's albatross, a burden rather than a benefit to any candidate (such as a Barbara Boxer) who would like to consider the president's support as an asset.
Frantically, as if searching for a loophole, many are leafing through 445 pages of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report on Clinton's "wrongdoing," with more than 2,000 more pages of supporting documents also piled high.
Benefit-of-the-doubt givers such as Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) are trying to hold off turning against Clinton until they can recover from Friday's "feeding frenzy," as McDermott called it.
McDermott--a trained psychiatrist when he isn't holding office--is watching carefully to see how the president handles this crisis. He wishes to remain Clinton's ally. He says he still doesn't understand why House Speaker Newt Gingrich wouldn't afford the president even "one hour" to peruse Starr's report before releasing it to the masses.
"That's not fair," McDermott told a TV interviewer.
In the meantime, even adversaries who claim they wish to give Clinton every chance to explain himself have begun to use tones and language so brutally blunt, they make it clear just how disgusted they are with the president, and how reprehensible they consider his moral behavior to be.
Rep. Thomas M. Davis (R-Va.) was aghast at the graphic nature of Starr's findings regarding the president's sex life.
"It's disgusting," Davis said. "It's not the way normal people act."
To which a colleague, Rep. Charles T. Canady (R.-Fla.), added that if everything in Starr's report proves true, it represents "a defilement of the office of president."
And thus Clinton, not unlike Nixon, is feeling a snowball effect, seeing a sinful and "inappropriate" act--the equivalent of a "third-rate burglary"--turning into something larger and larger that could very well bury him underneath.
Starr's report was repugnant. Why it needed to be so painstakingly detailed and graphically frank is a question only he can answer.
To some of us who, yes, do have growing concerns about Clinton's fitness to remain in office, it seemed unnecessary to make public disclosures so intimate that they ranged from Monica Lewinsky's tragicomic belief that the president might someday marry her to a particularly vulgar example of the kind of safe sex they practiced.
Nevertheless, there was a time when this president--as with a notorious predecessor--had a reason to feel confident that whatever he did, those who believed in him would continue to believe. That time has passed.
All the president's men in 1974 couldn't put Richard Nixon together again. His support caved. Bill Clinton's is crumbling.
Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or phone (213) 237-7366.