Let's you and them fight In this corner: President Clinton says he wanted to punch columnist William Safire, who called his wife "a congenital liar." Why not? And after that, Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh?

January 21, 1996|By Jesse E. Todd Jr.

WHILE I ABHOR violence, the idea of President Clinton punching New York Times columnist William Safire in the nose does have some appeal. Mr. Safire has called Hillary Rodham Clinton "a congenital liar" regarding Watergate -- I'm sorry, that was the affair of Mr. Safire's former boss, Richard Nixon; I meant Whitewater -- and Mr. Clinton is alleged by his spokesman to have refrained from a pugilistic response to this insult only because he is, after all, the president.

But I say any president who's willing, as Mr. Clinton has done, to discuss his underwear in public has already set a standard of conduct for the presidency that would be raised, not lowered, by an old-fashioned defense of the first lady's honor. Let Mr. Clinton put on his boxers and box.

And when he's through with Mr. Safire, let him move up about 10 weight divisions and take on Rush Limbaugh. Teddy Roosevelt was quite a boxer, so there's plenty of precedent for presidents putting on the gloves.

Nor do I see any need to confine the fisticuffs to the Whitewater affair. While we're at it, let's settle this budget impasse once and for all. After Mr. Clinton has whupped Mr. Safire and Mr. Limbaugh he can take on Newt Gingrich. My money says the speaker of the House will make Mr. Clinton look like Mike Tyson. Not since the Civil War will a politician from Georgia have suffered so horribly, and that includes Jimmy Carter.

The line forms on the right

I just hope that Mr. Clinton has kept up his jogging, because

even if the boxing is restricted to settling Whitewater insults, the president has his work cut out for him. Mr. Safire isn't the only journalist taking shots at the first lady. Mr. Clinton's endurance is going to be tested.

The latest outpouring of outrage goes back to the discovery last month of files that had been missing for more than a year. Among those files was a memo by a White House aide pertaining to the controversy around the firing of White House travel office employees in 1993. The first lady has said she had no role in the dismissals; the memo says the employees were fired at her insistence. This is what is known as a contradiction.

Aside from the contradiction, there's the issue of how these files, sought for so long by so many investigators, could be lost and then, poof, suddenly appear. As in other aspects of the Whitewater inquiry, incidents occur that, while they don't prove wrongdoing, raise suspicions of wrongdoing.

The Land of the Lost

But let's be fair. Who among us has not lost something only to have it reappear mysteriously? The list is endless at my house. The scissors with the red handles will be in the kitchen one moment, gone the next and then turn up three days later in the den closet. I don't even look for them now when they're lost, because I know I won't be able to find them. I just wait, and they show up on their own. Same with my cats, but of course, unlike memos, they have to eat.

Sometimes you can't lose something you desperately hope will go away, like the postcard reminding you to schedule a dental appointment. Or, if you're Bill Clinton, like Paula Corbin Jones. She's the woman who is suing Mr. Clinton for sexual harassment. An appeals court said last week her case can proceed, that Mr. Clinton is not immune from being sued while he's in office.

If the normal procedure is followed, this case will drag on for months. But there's a better, quicker way to resolve the dispute: Let Hillary and Paula fight. It can be the opening card with the main bout to be the president and Mr. Safire or Mr. Gingrich.

All this would be great entertainment and probably make as much sense as a lot of what's happening in Washington now.

Jesse Todd is associate editor of the editorial page of the Daily Press in Newport News, Va.

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