Telling a scandal from a crime Lewinsky: Lurid tales may discredit president, disgrace country, even if he broke no law.

August 08, 1998

THE SPECTACLE of Monica Lewinsky entering the courthouse, before enough cameras to cover World War III, embarrasses the nation and undermines the grand jury.

That institution exists to winnow out false accusation from true, which is the rationale for its secrecy. If grand jurors determine there is no case to answer, the public is never to know an accusation had been made. The reputation of the falsely accused is preserved. In this case, that is a joke.

Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor, has been pursuing scandal as if it were crime. It is unclear from his behavior whether Mr. Starr's purpose is to besmirch President Clinton's reputation and political authority or to prosecute crimes and inform the House of Representatives of evidence warranting impeachment.

A scandal is conduct, real or perceived, that offends established morality and disgraces those associated with it. The tales of Mr. Clinton's behavior with Monica Lewinsky are scandal, true or not, because many people believe them. Mr. Clinton and Ms. Lewinsky can never restore their reputations.

Mr. Clinton's sexual behavior, whatever it was, forms what is called the character issue. This issue is appropriate, even essential, for consideration by voters in an election. It was loudly raised against Mr. Clinton in 1992 and 1996. The voters concluded that, all issues considered, Mr. Clinton should be president.

The allegation of a crime in this incident is far-fetched: That Clinton may have perjured or persuaded others to perjure themselves in testimony in a civil trial. That is a stretch because most civil trials involve direct contradictions in testimony where the loser is rarely prosecuted.

The civil trial would determine who is telling the truth. A lie, to be perjury, must be material to the outcome. In this case, a judge ruled the testimony not material to the lawsuit and then ruled that the lawsuit lacked sufficient merit. If anyone else were involved, a charge of perjury without a trial would be unimaginable.

While a judicial proceeding cannot be prejudged, this one so far appears to lack criminal content. Scandal it is. Mr. Clinton, Ms. Lewinsky, Linda Tripp, Mr. Starr, those who appointed him and the prurient media have perpetrated this scandal, as though conspiring with each other. The republic will not soon restore its good name.

Pub Date: 8/08/98

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