Impeachment hearings necessary for history's sake

September 30, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Just a few weeks after being forced out of the vice presidency in a criminal prosecution, Spiro T. Agnew evoked applause when he appeared at a restaurant or theater.

Almost from the moment he left, Agnew complained that he had been railroaded out of office. In fact, as a price he paid to be allowed to plead nolo contendere to felony charges, Agnew had signed a 40-page statement admitting criminal behavior such as taking $100 bills in plain brown envelopes.

But some people are always willing to accept revisionist versions of the facts. And in Agnew's case, they bought the line that he had been politically victimized.

Richard M. Nixon also managed to rewrite history over the years. He was forced to resign the presidency because there were enough votes in the Senate to remove him from office. And his offenses were serious enough so that he felt he needed the pardon granted by President Gerald Ford after he took office.

But as time passed more and more Americans bought the line that Nixon had done nothing more egregious than other presidents. Nixon's only failure, he kept suggesting, was not keeping a tight enough leash on those who worked for him. Short memories seem to be epidemic.

All this history is worth reviewing as we see President Clinton beginning to present revisionist versions of his relationships with women that have put his presidency in jeopardy. The fact that he is doing so is a strong argument for the Republicans to use in justifying their determination to hold hearings on impeachment, if not necessarily to pursue Mr. Clinton's removal from office.

The Flowers case

In his videotaped testimony to the grand jury, the president referred to Gennifer Flowers as a woman who was motivated to rTC accuse him largely by money she was paid by sensationalist magazines for her story. But in his deposition in the Paula Jones case, Mr. Clinton conceded that, contrary to what he said in 1992, he had a sexual encounter with Ms. Flowers, although he insisted it was only a single incident, not a 12-year affair.

The president then told the grand jury that the Paula Jones action against him was a "bogus" lawsuit brought by unnamed political enemies determined to do him in. But if that is the case, why has Mr. Clinton offered to pay $500,000 to reach a settlement? The inescapable inference is that he did something that requires a payoff.

Then there is the case of Kathleen Willey, who accused the president of groping her in the Oval Office when she went to him to seek a paying job because she and her husband were in serious financial trouble. In this case, Mr. Clinton took the same unseemly line that his stooges had taken earlier -- that Ms. Willey's charges were undermined by the fact that she subsequently had sent him friendly notes. He brushed off the evidence that on a campaign visit to Richmond, Va., he called Ms. Willey twice and tried to get her to come to his hotel room.

Finally, in the central matter of White House intern Monica Lewinsky, Mr. Clinton has admitted that he was guilty of inappropriate behavior. But he has continued to split hairs about whether he lied about that relationship in the Jones deposition, an obvious attempt to cast the whole issue into some gray area of disputed interpretations of events.

The strategy being followed by the White House now is politically sound. Mr. Clinton and his surrogates are all sending the message that, opinion polls show, most Americans want to hear -- that the whole smelly episode is over and it is time to move on.

A clear record

But you have to hope that just once the record would be so clear that writing revisionist history would be impossible. At the moment, the evidence of Mr. Clinton's misbehavior seems beyond any dispute. But history shows that before long the president's apologists will be depicting the whole thing as a trumped-up attack being waged by his political enemies to thwart his great purposes as president.

Hearings conducted by the House Judiciary Committee may not be enough to prevent this process. Republican leaders in the House have been so clumsily partisan they do not appear to be likely agents of dispassionate fact-finding. But a clear record would be a service to history.

The trick for the Republicans will be to deal with the president while recognizing that pervasive demand from Americans to get away from this garbage and begin dealing with Social Security and health care.

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 9/30/98

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