Contempt ruling important for history's sake

April 14, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- They don't have to worry about creating a "gloat-free zone" around the White House anymore. Neither President Clinton nor his staff apologists have anything to gloat about anymore.

Monday's decision by a federal judge to hold Mr. Clinton in contempt of court for lying in a deposition about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky doesn't break any new ground in factual terms. It has been clear all along the president was lying, though he was unwilling to call it that.

What the Little Rock decision does accomplish, however, is cutting the ground from under the claims of Clinton supporters that the not guilty verdict in the impeachment trial meant he was innocent. What it meant was that it was politically unwise for Senate Democrats to force a Democratic president out of office.

U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright of Arkansas was under no such political pressures in finding that the president gave "false, misleading and evasive answers . . . designed to obstruct the judicial process" in the Paula Jones lawsuit.

The judge nailed Mr. Clinton specifically on his assertions that he couldn't remember being alone with Ms. Lewinsky and didn't have a sexual relationship with her. The statements, the judge said, "were intentionally false, notwithstanding tortured definitions and interpretations of the term `sexual relations.' "

Judge Wright apparently showed some restraint in citing the president for civil contempt, not criminal contempt. Her verdict makes him subject to fines and the possibility of disbarment in Arkansas. But a citation for criminal contempt could have raised anew the question of whether Mr. Clinton had committed a crime for which he could have been subject to impeachment.

The decision does lend some aid and comfort to the Republicans in Congress, who pursued Mr. Clinton with such zeal all through the winter until his acquittal by the Senate on Feb. 12.

Perhaps what is most significant about the finding, however, is that it may temper the efforts by the president and his flacks to depict the whole Lewinsky episode as a product of a right-wing conspiracy. Already, he has told television interviewers, first, that he feels no lasting embarrassment from having been impeached and, second, that many of his problems stem from people who don't like his policies as president.

Judge Wright brings the facts of the matter back onto center stage: The president had a sexual relationship with a young White House intern and then lied about it for eight months, including in a deposition in a civil case and in testimony to a grand jury in a criminal proceeding.

For most Americans, this latest development may seem to be just more of the apparently endless legal wrangling over some conduct by the president that was in bad taste but not something worth snarling up the whole country for a full year.

But the record is important. Anyone with even a moderately long memory here has seen political leaders rewrite the history of their bad behavior and get away with it, at least with many people. There is a substantial minority of Americans who believe, for example, that Richard Nixon was forced out of office for acts no worse than those committed by other presidents. But that ignores the fact that Nixon himself knew he needed a pardon to avoid being prosecuted for felonies.

A few weeks after being forced out of the vice presidency in a criminal prosecution, Spiro T. Agnew was complaining that he had been railroaded.

There were people who bought that line, though Agnew pleaded no contest only after he signed a 40-page document outlining in detail his criminal behavior, such as taking $100 bills in plain brown envelopes.

So Mr. Clinton may be tempted to write in his memoirs that the whole Lewinsky affair was just a misunderstanding.

Judge Wright's finding on contempt makes that kind of revisionism a little more difficult -- and describes Mr. Clinton's conduct a little more accurately.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 4/14/99

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