Final report on Clinton leaves affair unresolved

March 08, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The final report of independent counsel Robert Ray on former President Bill Clinton's semantic gamesmanship in the Monica Lewinsky affair is supposed to, if you'll pardon the expression, put the matter to bed. Don't bet on it.

Mr. Ray had earlier disclosed that while he believed he had the goods on Mr. Clinton for obstructing justice, he had decided not to prosecute him when the president, in his fashion, owned up before leaving office to doing just that.

Mr. Ray has now spelled out that his judgment "that sufficient evidence existed to prosecute President Clinton was confirmed by President Clinton's admissions" that he "knowingly gave evasive and misleading answers" about having sexual relations with the most famous White House intern.

Further, the report says, Mr. Clinton's conduct "if commonly committed would severely undermine our system of justice," and the evidence would probably have been "sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction." It would have met, it said, the Justice Department standard of evidence needed "to obtain and sustain a conviction by an unbiased trier of fact."

Nevertheless, Mr. Ray has concluded that Mr. Clinton was punished enough by all the disclosures, House impeachment, fines of nearly $1 million on contempt-of-court and other findings and having his license to practice law suspended for five years.

In an explanation worthy of wordsmith Clinton himself, the report says Mr. Ray concluded that all these things, plus Mr. Clinton's admissions, "adequately upheld federal law enforcement interests in promoting truthfulness and honesty before judicial tribunals by a high government official in a position of trust." You have to wonder, however, how this conclusion is likely to deter others from, in effect, lying to a grand jury and in a sworn deposition.

This business of relying on offending high officials to punish themselves out of remorse over their sins was found to be wanting long ago in the cases of former Vice President Spiro Agnew and former President Richard Nixon. Both escaped jail by their resignations coupled with their versions of "mistakes were made." In the absence of their being tried in a court of law on their culpability, their loyalists were able to insist afterward that Mr. Agnew and Mr. Nixon had been railroaded.

Mr. Clinton was an artful dodger to the end. Here is how, in his final deal with Mr. Ray last year to avoid prosecution, he explained his answers: "I tried to walk a fine line between acting lawfully and testifying falsely, but I now recognize that I did not fully accomplish this goal and that certain of my responses to questions about Ms. Lewinsky were false." Translation: Yeah, I lied, but I just now realize it.

The notion that this report will put an end to the sorry saga of Mr. Clinton, Ms. Lewinsky and previous independent counsel Kenneth Starr was put to bed at once by a Democratic National Committee spokeswoman. "It's not clear what the purpose of the report is," she said, "other than to promote Robert Ray's [rumored] Senate campaign and Monica Lewinsky's HBO special." Another vast right-wing conspiracy, no doubt.

In practical terms, the country decided early on that it wanted to put the whole sordid business behind it. Polls repeatedly indicated that voters wanted Mr. Clinton to finish his term, which he did -- with new allegations of handing out pardons like souvenir presidential fountain pens.

But Mr. Clinton's sexual misconduct in the Oval Office and his trying to "walk a fine line" between telling the truth and lying is now or soon will be in the history books. Meanwhile, the public and private debate will continue as to whether he too, like Mr. Agnew and Mr. Nixon, was somehow railroaded, though not out of office.

There is something to be said for letting justice take its course. But in Mr. Agnew's case, then-Attorney General Elliott Richardson decided the better step was to get the vice president out of the immediate line of succession to the presidency, with Mr. Nixon already in hot water over Watergate.

As for Mr. Nixon, his resignation rather than near-certain impeachment and conviction also averted a worse national problem.

Mr. Clinton's slippery admission of lying saved him from prosecution too, and that was probably also for the best, for the country and for him. But the outcome will never end the argument between the warring camps of Clinton and Starr defenders.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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