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Jewish World Review Feb. 24, 2000 /18 Adar I, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Ghosts in the attic, or: The maturity of Slick Willie -- AFTER ALL THESE YEARS of Clinton-watching, it's still astounding how readily, how almost automatically, Bill Clinton morphs into Slick William (for he's now an elder statesman) and starts manipulating any issue within hailing distance.

It's as if what began as a dodge became a habit, and now has become an autonomous reflex -- like breathing in and breathing out dust. He doesn't have to think about it anymore; it's become second nature and maybe first.

Item: At his press conference last week, the president praised the governor of Illinois, George Ryan, for declaring a moratorium on the death penalty. Governor Ryan "did the right thing,'' said Bill Clinton, after DNA tests had shown that a disturbing number of inmates on that state's Death Row shouldn't be. It was a courageous decision on the governor's part, said the president.

As courageous a decision as Bill Clinton's returning to Arkansas just before the New Hampshire primary in 1992 to preside over the execution of Rickey Ray Rector? That was the name of the effectively self-lobotomized killer who had put a bullet through his own brain after murdering a couple of innocent people in Conway, Ark., including a veteran policeman. It was all part of a violent spree that doesn't make sense to this day.

One story has it that the condemned man asked the guards to save his dessert for him when he went off to be executed -- so he could enjoy it afterward. What a death watch that was, for Rickey Ray Rector's was a more than ordinarily difficult execution. The team assigned to carry it out had a hard time finding a suitable vein for the fatal dose, although a gentle Rickey Ray, always obliging after he had pretty well destroyed his mind, did his best to help.

By refusing to spare this obviously deranged, brain-damaged vestige of the killer, Governor and Candidate Clinton showed how tough on crime he could be -- just in time for the vote in New Hampshire.

Now, eight years and two presidential terms later, no one at this press conference asks him if, in retrospect, he would say he did the right thing. His part in that grisly episode made my flesh crawl then, and it still does. But now he talks about what a fine and courageous thing it is to suspend the death penalty -- in Illinois.

Surely no one, except perhaps the families of the victims, or some aging reporter stuck with a memory, may now remember Rickey Ray Rector's name. If it's mentioned at all in the future, it may only be in connection with William Jefferson Clinton's.

Maybe some graduate student burrowing in the Clinton presidential library in the next century will come across the story before going on. Indeed, there would have been no need to dredge up
Rickey Ray Rector's name today if the president had not delivered so lofty a little speech about capital punishment and doing the right thing.

One can argue for or against the death penalty on principle, but principle would seem to have precious little to do with Bill Clinton's stand(s) on this issue. Once again, he was just aligning himself with the courageous thing to do, once it became safe.

Item: The president was also asked if he planned to surrender his law license in this state, which would save the people of Arkansas the trouble and embarrassment of taking it away. For the Arkansas Supreme Court's committee on professional conduct must now consider whether he should be disbarred for his false and misleading testimony under oath.

As a consequence of that testimony, he was fined $90,000 by a federal judge (Susan Webber Wright) who determined that the president was trying to obstruct the judicial process at the time. But you would never know as much from his rambling response to this question at his news conference.

Instead of a direct answer, William Jefferson Clinton went on for some time about how innocent he'd been in the Paula Jones case, how he'd said little about all of this up to now (but might sometime, just you wait), and that the only reason he'd settled that case (for $850,000) was because he thought a president's time was much too valuable to be taken up by having to litigate such matters ... and therefore he wasn't going to talk about his possible disbarment. Whew. Seldom have I heard a politician talk so much about what he wasn't going to talk about.

What ever happened to "No Comment''? That phrase had a certain dignity about it.

Instead we get another elaborate, self-serving, largely irrelevant dodge, complete with fervent yet familiar protestations of innocence, as in "I never had sexual relations with that woman!'' And the essence of answer to the question is that he's not going to answer it. Because his valuable time as our chief executive would be better spent on affairs of state in the Oval Office.

What is one to say? There are certain performances that merit only a slow, sad shake of the head. To describe them is sad enough.

For the moment, the machinery of the law in Arkansas will simply have to grind on in the matter of William Jefferson Clinton, Esq.

At least Richard M. Nixon spared the California bar the trouble of disbarring him by resigning, even if a little pressure had to be applied first. Bill Clinton could save his native state considerable trouble by quietly doing the same.

If only Counselor Clinton would just mail in his law license, he might spare himself still more awkward questions, and the rest of us would be spared the embarrassment of having to analyze his even more awkward responses. Would a little, yes, closure be too much to ask for?

Probably. For no matter how long and assiduously Slick William keeps touching up his official portrait for future generations, from time to time the public will get a glimpse of what lies underneath. And it's not pretty. There's always a telling detail or two in the background that catches the eye like a glancing blow, and awakens memory. It may be an almost forgotten name like Rickey Ray Rector, or a loose end still dangling from the U.S. vs. Clinton, but it will all out eventually. Not even the new, wise, mature, pontificating Slick William can cover everything up. That's the nature of History, no matter how many court historians may strive to undo it. Maybe because that's the nature of Truth.

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