Our past is filled with testimonies to the unique foundations of the American Experiment namely, that no man is above the law; that justice is blind; that there is one law for the mighty and the meek. The question Independent Counsel Robert Ray must ultimately answer in choosing whether to indict President Clinton after he leaves office is whether these noble precepts still ring with truth, or are just a lot of hooey.
The president of the United States broke laws. He was impeached for doing so. He was cited for contempt of court for it, and fined $90,000. When the Senate acquitted Mr. Clinton last year, deciding that his crimes did not require removal from office, it left open the possibility, repeated explicitly, that Mr. Clinton would one day have to answer to the criminal justice system for his transgressions. In other words, the Senate effectively deferred judgment, shifting the responsibility from the political realm to the judicial.
One year later, consider the shock and dismay expressed because Mr. Ray is taking that responsibility seriously. Rather than tidying up his desk and padlocking the office door, the 40-year-old career prosecutor has made himself at home, plumping up his staff with a new investigator, six new lawyers and an FBI agent to assist him in deciding whether to press criminal charges against Mr. Clinton after he leaves office. Why? “There is a principle to be vindicated,” he told The Washington Post last week. “And that principle is that no person is above the law, even the president of the United States. That is what we have been charged with doing.”
No wonder the political culture is shriveling. If the initial reception to his words is any indicator, the politerati are not exactly likely to be united in one, big, furrowed brow of bipartisan solemnity when and if Mr. Ray decides to press charges. The New York Times has already sounded the editorial alarm about “Reining in Mr. Ray.” The Washington Post, more measured, perhaps, but equally as emphatic, urged Mr. Ray “to continue behaving with restraint,” noting, “The principle is important. But … ” On Capitol Hill, Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, took to the Senate floor to rail about the fact that Mr. Ray is even considering a Clinton indictment, calling it “the brink of lunacy.” (This is a bait-and-switch on Mr. Reid’s part considering that, as the Associated Press reported, Mr. Reid “co-sponsored a censure resolution that, in lieu of impeachment proceedings, would have provided for the president to remain subject to criminal actions in a court of law.”)
Once upon a time, it was Senate Democrats and Clinton supporters who burbled on about removing the case from the heated political context and dispatching it to some cool, marble courtroom of the future. After all, as Sen. Herbert Kohl, Wisconsin Democrat, put it during the days of the impeachment trial, “His [Mr. Clinton’s] acts may not be ‘removable’ wrongs, but they could be ‘convictable’ crimes.” Or, as Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, said, “In my judgment, these are matters best left to the criminal justice system.” The Wall Street Journal recently reprised these and other statements from an array of Democrats, including Sens. Barbara Boxer of California, Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Richard Bryan of Nevada, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and John Breaux of Louisiana and Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, who assessed the situation this way: “Punishment for alleged criminal law violations is not up to the United States Congress. That’s up to the criminal justice system.”
Now that the criminal justice system is gearing up, we’ll see if these words still ring with truth, or are just a lot of hooey.