How Clinton saved Constitution

April 17, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Let us all now be grateful to President Clinton for saving the Constitution for us. You probably weren't aware he did it, but he informed the American Society of Newspaper Editors of the fact here last week at its annual convention.

The revelation came in response to a question about whether his presidential library would have a "wing" dealing with his impeachment. Regarding that late unpleasantness, he said, "I am proud of what we did here because I think we saved the Constitution of the United States."

He accomplished this feat, he went on, by defeating "the Republican revolution of 1994 when they shut down the government and we beat back the Contract on America [former Speaker Newt Gingrich's agenda]," and "then we had to beat it in the impeachment issue."

Indeed, he said, "I consider it one of the major chapters in my defeat of the revolution Mr. Gingrich led" because it "would have changed the Constitution forever in a way that would have been very destructive to the American people." In the House voting articles of impeachment against him, he informed the editors, "as a matter of law, Constitution and history, it was wrong."

The country, too, can now be profoundly grateful to him for correcting the misperception that it was the House in voting impeachment that was adhering to the Constitution in investigating the allegations of misconduct in office against him.

The whole business is being revisited now as a result of the report from Robert Ray, the independent counsel who took over from Kenneth Starr, that he intends to complete the investigation into whether Mr. Clinton committed perjury before a grand jury in the sex-and-lies scandal. Then he will decide, he said, whether after Mr. Clinton leaves the White House, to seek an indictment against him.

Until the speech to the editors, Mr. Clinton had said nothing about Mr. Ray, but now he seemed to have his doubts. "There are independent counsels and then there are special counsels," he said, "so I won't be surprised by anything that happens -- there is something fundamentally changed in the last seven years about how the counsels were appointed, who they were and what their priorities were." So apparently the "vast right-wing conspiracy" still lives.

In telling another questioner that he would neither seek nor accept a presidential pardon, Mr. Clinton made a point of saying at length that he had been exonerated in the Whitewater land deal case. But it was his lies before the grand jury in the sexual misconduct case, not the Whitewater matter, that were the subjects of the impeachment articles.

Now that Mr. Clinton has informed us of how he saved the Constitution by fighting impeachment, are we to conclude that his immediate predecessor in presidential impeachment woes, Richard Nixon, subverted the Constitution by resigning rather than fighting the impeachment articles voted against him by the House Judiciary Committee in 1974?

All Mr. Nixon did then was bow to the inevitability of conviction and get a head start in private life on trying to save his legacy after the Watergate fiasco. Mr. Clinton, attempting to do the same while still in office, continues to put a noble face on the tenacious and disingenuous manner in which he and his lawyers successfully fought off conviction.

Mr. Clinton is now joining not only Mr. Nixon but also former Vice President Spiro Agnew, who also looked down the gun-barrel of impeachment on bribery and corruption allegations before resigning, in seeking to persuade the American people that he was railroaded, though in Mr. Clinton's case, not out of office.

It is a contention Mr. Nixon carried into his own presidential library (privately financed) with a slanted exhibit on the Watergate scandal that led to the impeachment articles voted against him. There can be little doubt that Mr. Clinton will attempt to convey the same message in his Little Rock presidential library's treatment of his impeachment -- along, perhaps, with an exhibit of other great Americans who also saved the Constitution for us.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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