Behind the partisan clamor of the Whitewater hearings that began last week are the distinct echoes of the Watergate affair, which reached its climax 20 years ago this month. But they aren't the echoes you might expect or the ones Sen. Bob Dole wants you to hear. They are, instead, the unintended effects of 20 years of reform.
Watergate gave rise to one of the greatest anti-corruption crusades in American history. Campaign-finance laws and new ethics codes rewrote the rules of American politics at all levels. Prosecutors and journalists were energized as well, producing highly visible convictions and a range of revelations about political figures great and small.
Two precepts guided these efforts from the start: openness in politics and government and intense scrutiny of the people in public life. Both are essential. If Americans are to govern themselves through democratic institutions, they are entitled to know what sorts of people represent them, and what those people do with the power they hold in trust.
The two goals are not identical. However, for two decades we have acted as though they were, and as though the pursuit of both should know no limits. Therein lies the problem.
Political corruption involves illicit connections between the public and the private. Reform ought to clarify and strengthen the boundaries between the two. This can never be done with complete precision, and so reform will always be a work in progress. But instead of strengthening public/private boundaries, we have gone a long way toward obliterating them.
It is easier to report on people than on policy processes; and it is tempting to believe that revelations about political stars are the same thing as monitoring the dealings of government.
Anyone who goes into political life today knows - or had better learn - that all aspects of his or her life, and of the lives of family members, are fair game whether through legal disclosure requirements or the prying eye of a telephoto lens. …