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THE SHARKS AND THE JETS PREPARE TO RUMBLE

Karl Marx was wrong about most things, but he was eerily on target when he said, "History repeats itself -- first as tragedy, then as farce."

The old commie could have been talking about Watergate and Monicagate. One was Nixonian tragedy. The other is Clintonian farce. The gulf between the somber crisis of 1974 and hyped-up, surreal frenzy of 1998 is enormous, as though in different countries. Never mind whether the sins that chased out Nixon -- abusing FBI, CIA and IRS -- equate with Clinton's unzippered lust.

Sure, blame the technological whizbang of the New Media, dispensing leaks with the speed of light and marinating us in a Bill and Monica saturnalia. Hard to believe, kids, but in Watergate there was no CNN or MSNBC, Internet or Matt Drudge.

Only Woodward and Bernstein, knocking on doors and rapping out almost unnoticed stories on -- holy PC! -- typewriters. What Watergate had aplenty was men with heroic gravitas -- Sam Ervin, Judge John Sirica, Eliott Richardson, Archibald Cox, Peter Rodino. It had villains with tough-guy flair, Liddy, Ehrlichman and Haldeman.

Now -- well, we've been blighted with priggish Ken Starr, a Puritanical avenger obsessed with thong underwear, cigars and Where He Touched Her. Amid the pornographic Niagara, it's quaint to recall the shock at Nixon's expletives deleted.

Even the stool pigeons aren't as classy. Watergate had John Dean, while the 1998 betrayer is Linda (Speak Louder, the Tape's Running) Tripp.

Women had minor Watergate roles -- gabby Martha Mitchell, suffering Pat Nixon, eloquent Barbara Jordan. Now feminists have their own conundrum, Monica the vixen-seducer-tramp-princess.

And the chief protagonists: Nixon a dark-jowled conniver, going to his grave unconvinced he'd done wrong; Bill Clinton, no slouch as a public liar, often seems near tears as a teen-ager who's wrecked dad's car and impregnated the homecoming queen.

But now that Monicagate's descending from sexual entertainment to the marble chambers of Congress, we see something blessedly missing in Watergate -- the Politics of Poison. After all, in 1974 the country was emerging from Vietnam and civil-rights struggles. Bonded by real crises, a post-World War generation of congressmen and senators was genteel, serious. Now the Honorables wave shivs like street gangs warring over cocaine turf.

"I think it began when Republicans, led by Gingrich, ran Speaker Jim Wright out. Then Democrats retaliated against Newt," says ex-Rep. Pat Williams, D-Mont. "Now the atmosphere is toxic."

No, says ex-Rep. Tom Railsback, a key Watergate player, the mood was exacerbated by hot-button issues, abortion and gun control.

Whatever the spark, the U.S. House is a serial food fight. Anger's sharpened by the outing of past adulteries by Dan Burton, Nancy Chenowith and Henry Hyde. Call the FBI! Throw in an election in six weeks, add the broth of a president's lustful capers. Asking the polarized House Judiciary Committee to decide impeachment with noble civility is as fantastic as inviting Serbs and Albanians to a lawn party.

Hyde, despite avuncular majesty, can't tame this anarchy of 35 partisan lawyers. They squabbled over dumping Clinton's videotape and 3,000 transcript pages. Clinton's poll ratings incredibly shot up. So they'll unload 16 more sleazy boxes.

"Republicans have made up their minds -- impeach the president, send it to the Senate," snaps Judiciary member Marty Meehan, D-Mass.

It's the first inning, but bench jockeys are snarling. House top Democrat Dick Gephardt demands, "Get this over with! We don't need a fishing expedition for months. Send it to the floor in 30, 40, 50 days." Gingrich scoffs. Who cares that the facts are known, the public sick of the spectacle. "Polls will not drive the process," said Newt.

Watergate veteran Wayne Owens, said on PBS, "No matter how people felt about Nixon, they knew we acted in a non-partisan way. When it was over, Congress went up 25 points in polls."

But in rowdy, raunchy '98, poison's in the air. Old wounds and vendettas fester. Blood runs hot by pols' consuming motive, saving their jobs. Throw in sex -- "the most mysterious area of life," said Bill Clinton, an undeniable expert.

There'll be no heroes in this smarmy brawl, no Rodino or Ervin or Sirica. It's a war of pygmies, thanks to a piggish president and a priggish prosecutor. Marx got it right. We've had the tragedy. Now comes the farce.

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