- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2003

Life doesn’t end after the presidency; there’s always the litigation to come. See the latest legal news made by Bill Clinton et ux. An appellate court in the District of Columbia has just awarded our boy ex-president about 2 percent of the millions he sought in legal fees stemming from the Clinton Scandals/Years/Surreal Experience. (Take your pick.) He got some $85,000. He had asked for $3.54 million.

That’s right: Mr. Clinton wanted to be paid for the damages he had incurred. As if he had been hit by some sort of bus — driven by Kenneth Starr, of course — while innocently crossing the street. (Whatever happens to the Hon. William J., Clinton, Esq., it is always somebody else’s fault.)

The Clintons do have some shame. They didn’t ask to be recompensed for their legal fees in connection with one of the scandals that bedeviled his eight-year administration, which was roughly co-extensive with investigations thereof. That one was L’Affaire Lewinsky. The former president agreed to handle his own costs in that case as part of the settlement/confession he reached with federal prosecutor Robert Ray.

The law professors will disagree — they always do — about the court’s ruling. But whatever they make of this grubby business, a moralist won’t have any problem figuring out what happened. It’s an old story. One falsity led to another — first in small, then in medium, then in great matters. But the end was in the beginning. It was all as predetermined as Oedipus’ fate, even if Oedipus never sought legal fees.

Did you ever see that movie, “A Simple Plan,” starring Arkansas’ own Billy Bob Thornton? It’s a story about how corruption spreads, one seemingly simple, foolproof decision inevitably after another. If they ever make a movie of Whitewater and its various spin-offs, Billy Bob ought to play Jim McDougal, the charmer and con man at the beginning and center of that mess. Once the political ascent and ethical descent began, all the -gates from File- to Pardon-, were inevitable. Bill Clinton’s story is all of a piece — one slowly deteriorating piece.

Was it a small matter or a great one that finally did in the star of the Clinton Story — the private infidelity, the public betrayal of trust, the falsehood under oath or the over-arching attempt to escape responsibility for any and all of it? And does it matter? Something would have tripped the boy up eventually. The truth will out, no matter how slowly the wheels of the law grind.

To get sidetracked by all the what-ifs, but-fors and if-onlys in the story, and in the latest legal arguments, is to overlook the one consistent thread throughout: the absence of a sense of honor.

There were many differences between Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton as presidents, but this much they had in common: an emptiness at the center. Political loyalty they understood well, but the kind of personal honor that might have restrained some of their baser impulses — that they seemed to have no comprehension of.

What is a sense of honor, exactly? Concepts of honor abound. The kind we’re talking about is not the outward kind, as in honors. It is not the kind that wins ovations and prizes and elections. It is something within. It is the debt one owes one’s self. It is what we do that nobody will ever know about. It is what we do when we think nobody is looking. Of course someone always is, if only ourselves.

If the skeptics are right, and God is only an invention of man, then one function of that Invention is to let us know we are not alone, that Someone is always with us. So that even if a court had agreed to pay Bill Clinton millions out of the public treasury for his legal troubles, nothing important would have changed. For in its essence this is a matter not of dollars or politics or law but honor.

Honor is a different kind of ambition, and it requires a different kind of will. Bill Clinton is Southerner, or used to be. He knows about honor. But as we all discover when re-examining some betrayal of our selves, knowing is one thing, and acting on that knowledge another. In the end, this case is not one for the law books but for Sunday School lessons.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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