Monday, January 22, 2001

Before William Jefferson Clinton was nominated for the presidency, I had been reporting on his slippery record as governor of Arkansas. I wound up agreeing with The Washington Post’s David Von Dreher who wrote of Mr. Clinton in March of that year that when he isn’t clicking, he can strike people as two-faced, soulless, trying to be all things to all people.

The late Murray Kempton, a Pulitzer Prize-winner for commentary, proved to be a caustic prophet in New York Newsday before the 1992 Democratic convention: “And so an increasingly shameful Democratic Party drifts toward the anointment of a shameless candidate.”

Since then, Mr. Clinton, the New Democrat, has so eroded the integrity of his party that on Aug. 13 of last year, Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone one of the few authentic Democrats left in Congress said in The Washington Post: “I think the Democratic Party has become a party without a purpose, except to win elections. The campaign money chase has seriously diluted our policy purpose, and there is a belief that talking about the poor is a losing strategy. We don’t inspire people.” Neither, in my view, does the Republican Party.

Yet Mr. Clinton has bamboozled much of the populace and the great majority of the working press that has covered his presidency. Moreover, during the impeachment process, Mr. Clinton succeeded in lowering the reputation for scholarship and intellectual honesty of the hordes of historians, law professors and “expert” lawyers who in ads and in testimony before Congress insisted that the president had not committed impeachable offenses. Some of the same “authorities” have excoriated the Supreme Court for its decision in Bush vs. Gore.

As Richard Posner, chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit wrote in “An Affair of State: The Investigation, Impeachment and Trial of President Clinton” (Harvard University Press), “the impression that many lay observers must have taken from the spectacle (during the impeachment) was that perjury is an unimportant technical offense and that a clever lawyer can beat any perjury charge (perhaps any charge, period) by spinning a web of sophistries.” Mr. Posner also cited these academic “authorities” on the rule of law as having ignored obstruction of justice, including tampering with witnesses, by the president, himself a lawyer and former law professor.

Since the working press had apparently not read the Constitution recently, let alone the record of the 1787 Constitutional Convention on impeachment, the citizenry was led to believe that the president, as the first lady famously declared, was the victim of a right wing conspiracy, and that the independent prosecutor, Ken Starr, had modeled himself after Torquemada. A reader of this column has sent me a hypothetical question that future historians presumably with more objectivity than those who put themselves in Mr. Clinton’s service might well consider. The reader asked the present citizenry:

“What if Gingrich were the president and he did all the things that Clinton has done perjury, tampering with witnesses, and all his personal excesses? Would you have voted to keep him in the office of the president, would you have wanted your Senate and House of Representatives to vote to keep him in office?”

The reader added: “I once wrote to Rep. David Bonior, who pursued Gingrich until he was out of office, and asked why he wasn’t doing the same thing to President Clinton, who was guilty of things far more serious than anything Gingrich did. Bonior never responded.”

I would now ask the same hypothetical question of Barney Frank, Maxine Waters and the rest of the Democrats who debated impeachment on the House Judiciary Committee and of all the senators who refused to convict Mr. Clinton.

Of course, I would also ask the question of the members of the media, in all its forms, and of all those continually reverberating commentators on cable television, such as Alan Dershowitz, Lanny Davis, Jeffrey Toobin (ABC-TV’s legal expert) and Joe Conason of the New York Observer and particularly White House janissaries James Carville and Paul Begala.

Both of them once worked for the late Robert Casey, Democratic governor of Pennsylvania. On his death, both spoke accurately and feelingly of Mr. Casey’s utter integrity and honesty. How could Mr. Carville and Mr. Begala then have devoted themselves to Mr. Clinton?

But how could Mr. Clinton have deceived so many historians, law professors and the American Bar Association about his conduct? The ABA was silent about impeachment, and later honored the president by inviting him to address its annual convention after federal Judge Susan Webber Wright held the president in contempt of court for undermining “the integrity of the judicial process.”

The suddenly announced deal between the Independent Prosecutor and Mr. Clinton sets an unruly precedent. Mr. Clinton admits he broke the law but there will be no prosecution. Is this the rule of law?

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