Clinton's cloudy days

October 03, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - These are not good times for any of us, but they're particularly not good for Bill Clinton. The man who never ceased for eight White House years to remind others in distress or discomfort that he felt their pain is feeling more of his own right now.

The Supreme Court has suspended his right to practice before it, at least for the 40 days the court's rules specify he must be given to say why he shouldn't be permanently disbarred. The action is standard practice for a lawyer who has been disbarred by a lower court, as the former president was when the Arkansas Supreme Court punished him for lying or at least playing with the truth in his testimony in the Paula Jones' sexual-harassment suit.

Mr. Clinton's lawyer says the former president will appeal. Nevertheless, in his first eight months since leaving the Oval Office, he hasn't given much indication of wanting to put his lawyer skills on display before the high court or anywhere else. Still, the court's action is another black mark on his resume, along with impeachment by the House, salvaged only by fellow Democrats in the Senate holding their noses while mustering the votes he needed for acquittal.

Since Mr. Clinton slipped out of the White House amid onerous and odorous 11th-hour pardons and settled into being a highly visible citizen of Harlem, he has made good, to a degree, on his promise to devote himself to good works. The latest of them is his plan along with former Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole to raise $100 million for scholarships for the children of victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

However, in a pale imitation of another Democratic former president, Jimmy Carter, Mr. Clinton has interspersed a considerable amount of pocket-lining and globe-trotting fun along with his do-gooding.

Speeches and lectures have brought him astronomical fees - all in the good cause of paying down debts incurred in his basically successful effort to stay several steps ahead of the sheriff.

But the cloud of his Oval Office antics that still hangs over him is not the only reason for his pain. For a man who revels in the limelight and has supreme confidence that no leadership challenge is too great for him, having to stand aside as President Bush suits up as a wartime leader has to grate.

Mr. Clinton also is seeing one of his chief accomplishments - handing over to President Bush a huge federal surplus and a road map for eradicating the national debt - becoming another casualty. A post-attack analysis of the economic situation by Democratic members of the House Budget Committee has concluded that the surplus will be wiped out next year, producing a deficit of as much as $70 billion.

In addition, prospects for a range of federal programs that Mr. Clinton hoped the surplus would usher in - from prescription drug benefits for the elderly to ensuring the solvency of the Social Security system - have been dimmed, not only by President Bush's tax cut but by the need for huge outlays to beef up military preparedness and homeland security.

Perhaps the only upside for Mr. Clinton is that the crisis suddenly facing the country will provide him with endless opportunities to convert into action his commitment before leaving the presidency to devote himself to public service as a private citizen.

Public reaction to him wherever he has gone since leaving office, whether in this country or abroad, has confirmed his immense personal appeal and his personal magnetism. His intelligence, his broad knowledge of an amazing range of subjects and his political talent for persuasion and conciliation all make him a highly valuable national resource.

One question is whether President Bush will want to enlist that resource in the awesome task of maintaining domestic support for his own handling of the terrorist challenge and building foreign cooperation in coping with it.

Another is whether Mr. Clinton himself might be willing to cut back on his labors on the lucrative lecture trail and his amusements on the big-time sports scene, and throw himself with all his obvious energy and abilities into the opportunities for more public service presented by this perilous time.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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