For Congress, a way out of the quagmire

August 26, 1998|By Thomas Oliphant

WASHINGTON -- Trent Lott started it back in March. He got no bandwagon rolling -- the Senate majority leader rarely does -- but the idea of Congress officially condemning President Clinton's behavior, assuming it doesn't include an actual and proved abuse of his office, such as obstruction of justice, has hung around.

Even now, it is not gaining ground, but it has gained some attention. It deserves to gain more, as long as various carts are not placed before various horses.

In addition to the somewhat increased level of attention for what shorthand is calling a "censure" of Clinton, what I find most interesting is that the topic is being discussed way up the president's chain of command. That's far from official, or even an indication of his own views, but it is plenty interesting and trial balloons have flown with a lot less helium than that.

From this perspective, censure stinks, if by that is meant a distinct measure drafted and approved by both houses of Congress. But there are other ways of skinning the same cat.

For one thing, the only use of censure on a president in American history left an aroma that is still around. In 1834, a Whig-controlled Senate formally censured President Andrew Jackson for a controversial use of power regarding a giant bone of contention in those days, the national bank. Jackson rightly accused his Whig opponents of lacking the guts to impeach him, and when they lost the Senate two years later, the censure was promptly withdrawn. No one has seriously attempted such a stunt since.

For another, a motion of censure would set weird, if not bad precedent. Since the grounds would presumably be an appalling sexual liaison with a young woman and an effort to keep it secret that included lying to the public, the question would arise if that is the standard for such an action Congress means to set. What about other presidential lies, for example, and what about other examples of lies with huge public consequences (like the Vietnam War) that get grandfather status?

There's still a way, however. The independent counsel, Kenneth Starr, is finally on the verge of presenting evidence to the House of Representatives. Assuming for discussion that there is no direct, dramatic, and unquestionable proof of obstruction or subornation of perjury that could overcome the public's overwhelming antipathy to further proceedings, the Congress (even though it doesn't have to) could vote to "accept" Starr's report. And in the measure accepting Starr's report, it could include language condemning the president's behavior. That limits it to this case.

The advantage is that it would give official voice to genuine feelings of horror and worse that people have about Mr. Clinton's admitted conduct.

It is still early for this, though not too early to have a few decent ideas on the shelf.

For starters, the president remains in seclusion with his family, a delicate and properly private process that must still be resolved before anything else matters. Mr. Clinton may also need a similar process to see if he can repair relations with his official and political families.

He also will need to say more to the public than he did last week to truly deliver the three Cs his chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, falsely advertised his brief speech as about to deliver -- confession, contrition and closure.

The biggest short-term casualty of those remarks was the anger of the very Republicans poised to try to find a way past this mess -- Orrin Hatch in the Senate, and Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde in the House -- and who have said Congress should not proceed toward even an inquiry into possible impeachment on the sole basis of a sex and sex-lies case.

That stance, if maintained, would probably split Republicans, many of whom insist that the president go or be tossed out of office. Even those leaders who have no stomach for a sex-based case -- like Newt Gingrich himself and chairman Gerald Solomon of the Rules Committee -- talk of expanding a Starr report on the Monica Lewinsky affair into a reinvestigation of everything the prosecutor has already investigated in his four-plus year, even if he has found no evidence of impeachable offenses.

Out of respect for the public's views and to avoid that kind of madness, this may be a matter that cries out for responsible settlement, unless the pure facts in Mr. Starr's report clearly indicate otherwise.

But first, we all need a signal from the first family. In one of the least-noticed, most direct sections of his speech, the president said, "I must put it right, and I am prepared to do whatever it takes to do so."

Thomas Oliphant is a Boston Globe columnist.

Pub Date: 8/26/98

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