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Jewish World Review / September 10, 1998 / 19 Elul, 5758

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg Here comes the judge


Judges tend to get a bit miffed when some slick defendant with a law degree starts playing games, confident he can outwit the rubes asking him questions.

Or as Bill Clinton, aka POTUS, put it in that semi-apology of his to the nation on his own, personal Black Monday: ``As you know, in a deposition in January I was asked questions about my relationship with Monica Lewinsky. While my answers were legally accurate, I did not volunteer information.''

So much for the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. In the president's words, you can hear not only his regret, at least at having been caught, but also something else: The swagger behind the confession. The not very well concealed pride in his cleverness, in his lawyership, in his having escaped the net of the law, at least so far. ``While my answers were legally accurate, I did not volunteer information.'' It's as if we're supposed to admire that. The way one does a mischievous child, a clever rascal, a Philadelphia lawyer, a good ol' boy up to sly devilment.

I immediately thought of the letter a much younger Bill Clinton had written a certain Colonel Holmes long, long ago. In it, the young man had halfway apologized for having played the old soldier for a fool, but you could see he was kind of proud of it, too, and unable to resist showing off how clever he had been at avoiding the draft and even ROTC while all the fools wound up serving. For he had more important things to think about, namely his ``political viability.''

Some people don't really change all that much, do they? To quote just a few all too transparent sentences from the most revealing and still most relevant letter Bill Clinton ever wrote:

``First, I want to thank you, not just for saving me from the draft, but for being so kind and decent to me last summer, when I was as low as I have ever been. One thing which made the bond we struck in good faith somewhat palatable to me was my high regard for you personally. In retrospect, it seems that the admiration might not have been mutual had you known a little more about me, about my political beliefs and activities. At least you might have thought me more fit for the draft than the ROTC. ... I began to think I had deceived you, not by lies -- there were none -- but by failing to tell you all the things I'm writing now.''

There it is, all of it: the ingratiating manner, the reach for a personal connection the sublime confidence in his own ability to deceive without technically lying, and even the unstated wait for applause at the end, as if all this were somehow admirable. But just possibly, Bill Clinton made the same mistake in his fateful testimony last January that any number of clever people do: They're not clever enough. Because they trust their own cleverness more than the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And despite their charm, here and there an occasional authority figure -- an old colonel or maybe a judge down in Arkansas -- may see through them. Because you can't fool all the people all the time.

And now the judge who presided over Bill Clinton's oh-so-clever testimony seven months ago, the Honorable and honorable Susan Webber Wright of Little Rock, Ark., has appended an ominous footnote to a decision of hers. The decision was about whether to release some of the sealed testimony in the Paula Jones case. The footnote was one of those whose significance overshadows the decision it's attached to:

"Although the court has concerns about the nature of the president's Jan. 17, 1998, deposition testimony given his recent public statements, the court makes no findings at this time regarding whether the president may be in contempt.''

At this time. Maybe later? Maybe after Her Honor has read up on the law and examined the facts and re-re-reviewed the tricky testimony? Once again, William Jefferson Clinton, Esq., is being left to twist in the wind.

You can almost feel the great maw of the law closing one more little notch in its tortuously slow but implacable course. The mills of the law, like those of the gods, grind slow but exceeding fine. Those who enter its precincts do so at their peril, particularly if they think they can outwit the great jaws. For those whom the law would destroy it first makes cagey.

And so the great question hanging over the Union now becomes: Do you think Bill Clinton was tricky enough this time? Not the least of our boy president's offenses is that he should have reduced American politics, law and morality to an exercise in pettifoggery -- to the parsing of his little clinton clauses. So this is what the Republic envisioned in the Federalist Papers has come to: a lawyers' game that would demean a police court.

The cleverness of the sophisticated may prove no substitute for the innocence of the simple. For the most intricately tangled web may not stand up to the comfort of having tried to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. What a great insurance policy the truth is; it protects even dummies. Also, it doesn't offend judges, who really don't like to be made fools of.


9/07/98: Toward impeachment
9/03/98: The politics of impeachment
9/01/98: The eagle can still soar
8/28/98: Boris Yeltsin's mind: a riddle pickled in an enigma
8/26/98: Clinton agonistes, or: Twisting in the wind
8/25/98: The rise of the English murder
8/24/98: Confess and attack: Slick comes semi-clean
8/19/98: Little Rock perspectives
8/14/98: Department of deja vu
8/12/98: The French would understand
8/10/98: A fable: The Rat in the Corner
8/07/98: Welcome to the roaring 90s
8/06/98: No surprises dept. -- promotion denied
8/03/98: Quotes of and for the week: take your pick
7/29/98: A subpoena for the president:
so what else is new?
7/27/98: Forget about Bubba, it's time to investigate Reno
7/23/98: Ghosts on the roof, 1998
7/21/98: The new elegance
7/16/98: In defense of manners
7/13/98: Another day, another delay: what's missing from the scandal news
7/9/98:The language-wars continue
7/7/98:The new Detente
7/2/98: Bubba in Beijing: history does occur twice
6/30/98: Hurry back, Mr. President -- to freedom
6/24/98: When Clinton follows Quayle's lead
6/22/98: Independence Day, 2002
6/18/98: Adventures in poli-speke

©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate