President Clinton's silence may bother Starr but not the public

July 08, 1998|By JACK W. GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- It is a good bet that President Clinton will continue to ignore Kenneth Starr's kind invitation to testify voluntarily before a grand jury on his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

Moreover, if the opinion polls can be believed, the president probably can get away with stonewalling the independent prosecutor, who is being seen increasingly as a partisan conducting a vendetta.

But it should not be forgotten that this is a president who five months ago promised Americans "more rather than less, sooner rather than later" about his relationship with "that woman."

Instead, Mr. Clinton has simply stonewalled while the evidence mounted that most voters don't care whether he had a sexual relationship with the young White House intern and simply wish the whole investigation were brought to an end. "More rather than less, sooner rather than later" has become one of those "inoperative" statements for which another White House became infamous a generation ago.

It would be a mistake, however, for Mr. Clinton to imagine that he has not paid a price for his failure to clear up the whole question when it arose five months ago. On the contrary, his second term has now been severely compromised by the marathon controversy over his behavior.

For many of those around him -- including presidential confidant Vernon Jordan and presidential secretary Betty Currie -- the Clinton strategy has meant repeated trips before the grand jury as Mr. Starr doggedly pursues the story. For Mr. Clinton himself, it has meant that his legacy is tarnished.

The ultimate price of the president's policy cannot be calculated yet, of course. We don't know how many of those around him may end up getting indicted through their essentially tangential involvement in the episode. We don't know how much of a political burden, if any, the episode will prove to be for Vice President Al Gore in his campaign to succeed Mr. Clinton in the White House.

Just what legal muscle Mr. Starr may have is not clear. Mr. Clinton and other presidents have given testimony by videotape in both civil and criminal proceedings. But that is not the same thing as a president going before a grand jury in an investigation in which he is one of the central figures. And there is no assurance that the courts would support an effort by Mr. Starr to compel his testimony with a subpoena.

What is clear is that the White House is ready to test the limits of presidential vulnerability in the courts by arguing that the doctrine of separation of powers protects a president from such a subpoena. The White House theory goes that since the president is subject to the impeachment authority of the House of Representatives, it is the House rather than a grand jury that can compel testimony through a subpoena.

But other legal experts believe a president remains subject to subpoena in a criminal proceeding, as the Supreme Court found in the case of President Richard M. Nixon 25 years ago. They point out the court already has held in the Paula Jones case that Mr. Clinton is not immune to subpoenas in a civil case.

The contradictions are clear enough that a time-consuming series of court tests appears inevitable if Mr. Starr chooses to pursue Mr. Clinton's appearance as a witness. In political terms, the prospect of further delay is just what the White House would prefer.

There may be limits, however, on the leeway the president has been given by the public up to this point. One recent opinion poll found that 57 percent of Americans believe Mr. Starr should issue a subpoena and 64 percent believe Mr. Clinton should testify. More to the point, no one knows just how the public might respond to a direct defiance of a subpoena.

Throughout his time on the national political stage, Mr. Clinton has found he can get away with things. There have been irreconcilable contradictions in statements he made at various times on such personal issues as his relationship with Gennifer Flowers and his efforts to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War, as well as about-face reversals on policy questions.

Americans have always been willing to give Mr. Clinton the benefit of the doubt. And that is clearly the case in the approval ratings he gets today on his performance in office during an economic boom. The question is whether they care about his promise to tell "more rather than less, sooner rather than later" about Monica Lewinsky.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 7/08/98

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