Putting words in our minds Essay: By any definition, Clinton's a nimble linguist.

September 22, 1998|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

In terms of the "language" used by the president of the United States in his videotaped grand jury testimony of Aug. 17, 1998, nothing is actually heard that can be held to reasonably fall outside the established definition of "Bill Clinton."

Not, at least, as "Bill Clinton" has been defined and understood by American voters, who apparently embraced the definition on Nov. 3, 1992, and reaffirmed their understanding of the definition on Nov. 5, 1996. Let the record show that on these occasions American voters respectively elected and re-elected "Bill Clinton" the office of president of the United States, "Bill Clinton" having already defined himself as a man with a flair for language, a gift for rhetorical flourish and a certain capacity for verbal legerdemain.

As "Bill Clinton" said in his videotaped testimony, when he

wanted to tell his close friends that he did not have a "sexual relationship" with Monica Lewinsky, he wished not to "mislead," but to "deny." Or, as he put it: "I wanted to find language where I could say that."

Certainly. By any "ordinary American's" definition, "Bill Clinton" would be a fellow who throughout his political career often "wanted to find language," and often has. That the language would frequently be accompanied by lower lip biting, vocal hoarseness dripping "sincerity" and emphatic hand gestures has been mere icing on the cake. The point is -- and the definition of "is" will be further explored later -- that the use of language is salient in the definition of "Bill Clinton" as understood in the lexicon of contemporary American politics.

If extreme caution in the use of language is expected while

testifying before a grand jury, especially when matters of perjury are at stake, then no one could be better suited to the task than "Bill Clinton." One might go so far as to suggest that "Bill Clinton" possesses the ambition of a leader and the soul of a grand jury witness.

As a 23-year-old man with his eye on Yale Law School and a career in politics, "Bill Clinton" wrote from England his now-famous letter to the Reserve Officers Training Corps program in Arkansas. The explanation of his position on the Vietnam War and the draft, which he managed to avoid, shows a gift for language, pointed omission and historical invention: "a remarkable letter, classic Bill Clinton, sincere and deceptive at the same time" writes David Maraniss, whose biography "First in His Class," has helped in shaping the definition of "Bill Clinton" to which this document previously referred.

From the ROTC letter to the testimony of Aug. 17 is obviously a leap in context and legal gravity but not in spirit. The point, as "Bill Clinton" said explaining his actions to Col. Eugene J. Holmes, would be to "maintain my political viability."

Then as now. As when "Bill Clinton" is asked in his grand jury

testimony about the veracity of a statement made by his attorney before a judge in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case. The statement, referring to an affidavit filed by Monica Lewinsky, says "that there is absolutely no sex of any kind in any manner shape or form, with President Clinton."

The statement is false, says one of Clinton's inquisitors before the grand jury.

"It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is," says Clinton. "If the -- if he -- if 'is' means is and never has been, that is not -- that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement."

This answer falls within the definition of "Bill Clinton" as accepted by voters in 1992. That is, voters who may have heard "Bill Clinton" in his appearance on "60 Minutes" in which he was asked about accusations of an extramarital affair involving Gennifer Flowers while he was governor of Arkansas. His inquisitor at the time was Steve Kroft, a television newsman who did not have the benefit of subpoena power and had not put

Clinton under oath. No matter, Clinton's inner witness emerged.

Kroft: "I'm assuming from your answer that you're categorically denying that you ever had an affair with Gennifer Flowers.

Clinton: "I've said that before and so has she."

A couple lines later, Kroft, a poor earnest fellow adrift in the Clintonian fog says, "help us break the code ..."

The code, as understood under the definition of "Bill Clinton," would put forward the part to stand for the whole, the internally understood meaning to stand for the generally understood meaning, the statement about the fact of the statement to stand for a statement about the substance of the statement.

And terms must be so carefully understood, as one of Clinton's grand jury inquisitors learned when he asked, "Do you agree with me that the statement, 'I was never alone with her,' is incorrect? You were alone with Monica Lewinsky, weren't you?"

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