Facts don't lie

January 21, 1999|By George F. Will

"I regret that what began as a friendship came to include this conduct."

-- President Clinton, Aug. 17, 1998

WASHINGTON -- Such is President Clinton's fecundity as a liar, there still are darkly illuminating lies that are just now being scrutinized for the first time, even by people who have been attentive to this scandal. Consider the lie printed above.

Like Edgar Allan Poe's purloined letter, Mr. Clinton's lie has been in plain view. For five months. And it was neither a slip of the tongue nor a flustered response to an unexpected question. It was a carefully written part of a crafty script, coldly calculated and finely calibrated. It was in the written statement he read to the grand jury when he was asked the first question about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

But this relationship that supposedly "began" as a friendship actually became something else very quickly. The "conduct" that included oral sex (and e-mail describing the effect of chewing Altoids before performing oral sex) began the very day in 1995 that Mr. Clinton first met Ms. Lewinsky. As Rep. James Rogan, a California Republican, said to the Senate, within hours after Mr. Clinton met and spoke with Ms. Lewinsky for the first time, "he invited her back to the Oval Office to perform sex acts on him." Ms. Lewinsky has testified that even a month later, a month into both the "friendship" and "this conduct," she was still doubtful that Mr. Clinton even knew her name.

In the days before Mr. Clinton's Aug. 17 grand jury appearance, various Republicans and Democrats pleaded with him not to lie. By then the spectacle of national leaders begging the chief executive not to intentionally commit additional crimes was no longer spectacular. Five months ago the scandal implicit in such begging had become banal. Such is the moral chaos Clinton has sown.

The lie quoted above, which Mr. Clinton read to the grand jury, should be kept in mind as the president's attorneys argue to the Senate that even his cumulative lies do not constitute an impeachable offense. The Senate will weigh Mr. Clinton's comportment against the Harkin Standard, which Iowa's Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin clarified -- perhaps improvidently, from his and Mr. Clinton's point of view. Consider the path the Senate took to that standard:

Two things are infinite: God's mercy, of course, but also the Senate's vanity. The House did its duty, as it saw it, by impeaching the president, thereby forcing the Senate promptly to do a minimal duty: to agree on rules for a trial. So the Senate produced a "bipartisan" agreement, in which each side got exactly what it wanted. This was not amazing, considering that both sides wanted precisely the same thing: praise. Even if the praise were to be, as it mostly was, self-bestowed.

The senators decided to decide some other day about whether to have a trial with witnesses. Still, such is Washington's hunger for reasons to (as is said nowadays) "feel good about itself."

Then, after hearing two days of the House managers' presentations about the facts and the law, Mr. Harkin successfully asked Chief Justice William Rehnquist to affirm the obvious: In impeachment trials, senators are more than mere jurors, and hence are not bound to consider only the facts and the law. Mr. Harkin's eagerness to emphasize this point may be taken as a measure of the queasiness the president's supporters feel about relying on the facts and the law.

Mr. Harkin, who calls the House's articles of impeachment a "pile of dung," is agreeably free of the Senate's undignified preening about its dignity. And, eschewing the mock solemnity of his Democratic colleagues, Mr. Harkin does not pretend that he is interested in anything -- say, facts, or the law -- other than Mr. Clinton's survival.

Furthermore, Mr. Harkin is right: the Senate must consider the public good.

Which means Mr. Harkin, and others like him, must explain why the public good is served by leaving in the highest elective office the man who craftily wrote and coldly read the statement, "I regret that what began as a friendship came to include this conduct." That senatorial task is actually much more difficult than Mr. Clinton's lawyers' mundane task of filling the air with dust about the facts and the law.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/21/99

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