OK, it's time to look at the president one more time

December 16, 1998|By DAN RODRICKS

AND SO, my fellow Americans, shall we go over this one more time? I just want to see if I've missed something, if there's anything we know today that we didn't know, say, four months ago. Stay with me now. I'm thinking this thing out loud.

President Clinton had sex with a White House intern, and he lied about that under oath.

I know the president's lawyers will object to the statement. But I'm not bound by the rules of judicial procedure here. So let's just go on and pretend there are no lawyers in the room.

Most everyone seems to understand that Bubba's denials about the fling-a-ding-ding with Monica were false.

But here's the thing: Had the president lied about foreign policy - secretly selling arms to a terrorist nation, for instance - we would be in general agreement that he must go by now. Had he lied about his role in or knowledge of a crime - the break-in of his political opponents' offices, for instance - we would fully expect to see Al Gore plug in the lights on the White House Christmas tree.

But because Clinton's lie stemmed from a sexual encounter - and because we only know about the sex because of an independent counsel who could get nothing else on the guy, and because the independent counsel only knows about the sex because of a "friend" of the intern who tape-recorded telephone conversations (in possible violation of Maryland law) - more than half of us want the prez to be left alone.

We don't think his offense merits impeachment.

Have I got that right?

And so the mitigating factor is sex. Sex with an intern in the Oval Office - it's a private affair, not a national one (even if it occurred on federal property). Perjury about sex is forgivable. Is that it?

If the president had lied about something important, something that did the nation and the presidency harm, more of us might have taken this more seriously.

Any objections to what I've said so far?

Seeing none, I'll continue.

Now we all know that presidents have lied before. Clinton did so just the other day, I suspect, when he told reporters that resignation "has never crossed my mind."

But what's at issue is a lie under oath.

And yet, and yet I

Even that's complicated.

Clinton was only under oath because a unanimous Supreme Court said that he wasn't immune to being sued while in office. The independent counsel, Kenneth Starr, came along to review the president's testimony in the civil suit, which was brought by Paula Jones with the help of some right-wingers who've hated Clinton for years. (And the "independent" Starr, it was later learned, had six private conversations with a Jones attorney and provided him with substantive legal advice on critical legal issues.) And Starr, desperate after having spent the past few years frisking the entire Clinton administration, finally found some dirty pocket lint he could take to Congress: The president had, indeed, been having a good ole time in the White House.

So Clinton stepped into a trap set by those who've been out to get him. And, knowing this - because he's a Rhodes scholar, after all - he still didn't tell the whole truth. He gave his enemies the hanging rope. (I think he should have told Jones' lawyers, and later Starr, that the question of his relationships with women-not-his-wife was none of their business. Or he should have told the truth.)

So here we are, my fellow Americans.

Clinton lied under oath, and that warrants impeachment. Right?

Some say no. A lie stemming from a private matter doesn't matter. A lie in such a situation is understandable; most any man or woman would have done the same. Impeachment for such a minor offense would hurt the country more than Clinton's lies ever did. Besides, this whole thing looks like a political lynching, an attempt to overturn two elections.

Some say yes to impeachment. A lie of any kind, under oath, by the chief executive of the United States cannot be tolerated. Besides, the guy who would succeed him got just as many votes as Clinton did in the last two elections.

We need a judgment call here. That's the tough part, but it's done all the time. Men and women in robes do it every day. They make informed decisions. They consider mitigation. They leave politics on the sidewalk.

Let's boil this baby down: Do Clinton's lies about sex merit his ouster? Think how it would sound 20 years from now: Bill Clinton was impeached because he did not admit, under oath, to an extramarital affair. The punishment doesn't fit the crime.

So I don't think Clinton should be impeached.

But I think he should leave office, and said so months ago. He should have left to spare his wife and his daughter any further humiliation and (possibly more) psychological damage. He should have gone home. Instead, perversely, he stayed for the game.

That's the part that makes the least sense.

Pub Date: 12/16/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.