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Jewish World Review Aug. 6, 1999 /24 Av, 5759

Paul Greenberg

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A vast indifference: cleaning up post-Clinton -- THE HEADLINE ran across the front page of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: `Court lies cost Clinton $90,686.''

With all due respect for the judgment of the editors who make up Page One, and having learned long ago never, ever to meddle with their part of the paper, I hope the news side will understand if a mere columnist wonders out loud whether a few more Clinton lies, under oath or not, really merit a five-column headline across the front page.

What's the big story here? That our president lies, and that he gets caught? This is news? Just for decency's sake, couldn't we have got by with a small item on 11A, or maybe just another entry in a running box score?

Is the news that a judge in Little Rock has put a dollars-and-cents evaluation on a few of this president's slicker clinton clauses? In that case, couldn't we have just stuck it somewhere in the business section, maybe under the stock market quotes, with all the other fluctuating values?

The judge in this case, Susan Webber Wright, adopting a more-in-sorrow-than-anger tone, noted that the court, "no doubt like many others, grows weary of this matter.'' Nevertheless, repeating that she "has determined that the president deliberately violated this court's discovery orders, thereby undermining the integrity of the judicial system,'' etc., etc., which isn't exactly news, either, she assessed the defendant a $90,000 fine. Not in order to punish him, for no one seriously expects the Clintons to be short of legal defense funds and the kind of big givers who contribute to them, but "to deter others who might consider emulating the president's misconduct.''

What a hopeful sentiment, as noble as it is abstract. Anybody who's not deterred from lying under oath after having sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help him G-d, isn't likely to be deterred by the threat of a fine he can easily afford, especially if he thinks he can get away with it. (Oh, if not for that damned dress. ...) This fine is just another one-day story, another p/stscript to the defining accomp,ishment of this president: He beat the rap. He beat the system. Not even Richard Nixon could say that. And there's nothing of any great moment Susan Webber Wright or any other judge is going to do about it.

Yes, Judge Wright did make an intriguing comment somewhere in this 19-page decision about "additional misconduct ... including violation of the Court's Confidentiality Order. ...'' Is this a vague reference to the president's scurrying back to the Oval Office immediately after he'd been told not to discuss this case with witnesses, and dragging his poor loyal secretary, Betty Currie, into this mess and a world of legal fees?

But even if that's what Judge Wright was referring to, it's unlikely anything will become of it. None of this $90,000 fine is going to help that much-abused lady with her expenses. Betty Currie is just one more body whirled about in the Clinton tornado. I've lost count of all the casualties by now.

Not just Susan Webber Wright, but the whole country has lost any zest for pursuing this matter aoy further. In due time, this president will leave office with all ceremonies and rites fully observed. Unlike General Clark, he won't be getting any curt phone call telling him the nation can dispense with his services a little earlier than planned. That sort of treatment is apparently reserved for those who have served their country honorably.

The courts will not respond to this president's contempt with contempt, any more than the system as a whole will respond to his disdain with its disdain. This is too big a country for that. Rather, a different response has already set in. It is as palpable as the heavy, unbearable air of Arkansas in August. It is not contempt or disdain but just a vast indifference. And for Arkansas in particular, it's a rather poignant sensation, after all the hopes our native son raised. Light lie the ashes of our pride. But a different day and a different mood will come. It will just take a while.

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©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate