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Jewish World Review Feb. 7, 2000 /1 Adar I, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Just one mistake: Slick Willie's latest line -- BILL CLINTON COULDN'T GET AWAY from his indelible past, even a few hours before his last bravura State of the Union performance. Talking to Anne Gearan of The Associated Press, he wanted to make one thing Perfectly Clear, as Richard Nixon used to say. "First of all,'' the president began, "I made one mistake.`

One mistake? It was clear enough what he was referring to in general -- the yearlong succession of "mistakes'' that he put us all through in 1998-99, rather than any others in a long, long career of mincing and dicing the truth and serving it up in a very covered dish.

But what, do you suppose, he now thinks his single mistake was -- the affair? The lies that followed? The false testimony under oath that followed? The obstruction of the judicial process that came naturally enough after that? Or the endless apologies that sounded like apologias instead, and still do?

Or has Bill Clinton just compressed the whole, tangled web we weave when we practice to deceive into one single "mistake''? Have you ever talked to a con who didn't refer to his crime as a mistake, and who didn't think the real culprit was the prosecutor?

Listening to William Jefferson Clinton explain his one mistake, sometimes it may take whole minutes before we are reminded of Richard Milhous Nixon's never quite coming to terms with his one mistake. It was called Watergate, and it was no more one, single mistake than Bill Clinton's year of Moronica was.

Some guys never learn, and they never achieve -- awful word -- closure because they're too busy minimizing what they've done. They don't have the courage, or they have too much pride, to just face it, pull up their socks and proceed to openly resolve it. And so, inevitably, they keep getting asked about it.

The questions remain the same; only the answers vary as time passes. For the Nixons and Clintons keep searching for just the right combination of words that will do the trick, that will finally put this thing to rest, that will erase history. As of last week, the explanation went like this: "First of all, I made one mistake,'' Bill Clinton was saying. "I apologized for it. I paid a high price for it, and I've done my best to atone for it by being a good president.''

So much for those of you who thought he'd beat the rap. Shoot, he hasn't even been disbarred in Arkansas. And he managed to hold onto high office, unlike Richard Nixon. And now he portrays that feat as -- sit down for this one -- some kind of atonement. After that assertion, even an exclamation point would be an understatement. Why, the punctuation mark hasn't been invented yet that would do that bald-faced assertion justice.

Richard Nixon finally resigned -- despite the urgings of his last diehard fans, who till the very end thought he could brazen it out. He couldn't, not in the early '70s. But these are the late '90s, and standards for presidents have slipped considerably. Obstruction of justice and suborning perjury were impeachable offenses back then; lying under oath, contempt of court and obstructing the judicial process ... none of that is impeachable any more.

It's now said that Tricky Dick's attempts to hold onto his high office were political crimes and therefore impeachable. Slick Willie's are defended as only personal offenses, and therefore unimpeachable. So he gets to keep the office. Dale Bumpers, the former senator from Arkansas who gave that stemwinder of a speech for the defense, can explain it.

Anyway, Mr. Nixon never had Bill Clinton's natural charm. Or any charm at all. One of the funniest lines in Oliver Stone's "Nixon'' came when Anthony Hopkins, flawless in the title role, adjusted his tie, struck a pose and confided that he was about to turn on "the old Nixon charm.`

Those still captivated by the Clinton charm may have glided right over the little throwaway line ("I paid a high price for it.'') tucked into this latest apologia. What price can the man be talking about -- the monetary damages he paid Paula Jones and her lawyers, the embarrassment to himself, the inevitable line about impeachment he'll get in the history books? The whole wretched experience?

Whatever he was referring to, it's clear the man feels much abused. He's still focusing on the price hepaid -- not his family, not the Cabinet officers he got to repeat his lies, not the aides he involved in all those lies and lifetime legal expenses. What of the price they paid? What of the damage done the presidency itself?

Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton. ... How regularly can the highest office be disgraced without an impressionable young generation starting to believe that They All Do It, that all our presidents are like that? Such presidents are the meat on which cynicism feeds. And now Bill Clinton mentions only what his behavior cost him. How like him, how self-absorbed, how ... clintonesque.

For bad measure, the president who saved his office, if not his honor, called Ken Starr's investigation "bogus,'' which is just what he was calling it long before the dozen or so convictions the independent counsel obtained. One can certainly pick apart Judge Starr's strategy and tactics, but it's hard to argue with the string of convictions he obtained.

Bogus? Tell it to Webb Hubbell, Jim Guy Tucker et al. The bogus charges were directed against Billy Dale, the head of the White House travel office, when the Clinton Gang decided he had to be not only dismissed but disgraced. Yes, a good man who was only doing his job in this administration was ruined by false accusations, but his name wasn't Bill Clinton.

Paul Greenberg Archives


©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate