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Jewish World Review / Dec. 15, 1998 /26 Kislev, 5759

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg The President's defenders: witnesses for the prosecution

THIS MUCH BECOMES CLEAR as the case for the impeachment of one William Jefferson Clinton jells and hardens into articles of impeachment:

The president has violated his oath of office, the trust of the American people, and dishonored the presidency. He has made false statements in attempts to cover up reprehensible behavior, and has acted wrongfully to delay the discovery of the truth. He fully deserves to be condemned by the American people and their Congress. And this is what the president'sdefenders say.

Yes, these assertions are made in the proposed resolution of censure designed to get the president off the hook, and relieve Congress of an onerous and unpleasant duty. The adoption of such a resolution might even satisfy White House hopes that, if justice cannot be denied, at least it can be delayed until the president safely serves out his term. Defenders of the president who hope to take refuge in this resolution would make powerful witnesses for the prosecution.

To put the question now before the House plain: Did the president of the United States testify falsely after having sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

Here is a plain answer: "Reasonable people ... could determine that he crossed over that line and that, what for him was truthful and misleading or non-responsive and misleading or evasive, was, in fact, false.'' -- Charles F.C. Ruff, the president's own able counsel, and an honest man.

Of course, the president did not set out from the first to wind up in the dock. He just made decision after decision, and wound up where he now rightfully is. He may even have thought he was staying within the law by his own evasive, pettifogging, bizarre, word-maiming logic. After all, perjury is a hard rap to prove, as was pointed out by another distinguished president learned in the law, Richard M. Nixon.

But there is still such a thing as perjury, even if we're regularly told it's impossible to prove. Non-presidents are regularly indicted for it, and convicted.

There is also still meaning in words, even in words like is, alone, sexual relations, and absolutely true, no matter how often we are assured that the law has superseded the plain sense of the English language.

Whatever the outcome of this tangled web fast unraveling, even if turns out that perjury, too, is a meaningless word in the American lexicon circa 1998, this much has been made clear by the two-day parade of witnesses supposedly in the president's defense: The president has forfeited any moral initiative he ever had in this endless controversy.

Bill Clinton seems willing to plead guilty to any offenses other than legal ones. And he seems willing to give up anything to escape judgment except what has always been the holy grail of his existence: his public office, his precious career. His order of moral priorities, and perhaps the country's, has seldom been so clear. Or so depressing.

Whatever its mastery of legal legerdemain, the Clinton Defense amounts to a moral self-impeachment. The legal arguments offered by the defense bring to mind a story from the old country about the old woman who was accused of not returning a cooking pot. Her defense, like the president's, was ironclad: She never borrowed the pot, she had returned it, and it was a rusty, worthless utensil to begin with.

The old woman had nothing on this president's various defenders, who variously explain that the president committed no crimes, that he may be prosecuted for them after he has safely served out his term, and that they were not high crimes. The truth, the whole truth, or nothing but the truth, take your pick. The truth becomes infinitely malleable in Clintonspeak, like the language itself.

In 1998, we are to regard words by how well they serve our purpose at any given time, and not as markers, as guides, as illuminations, as signs that partake of the sacred. Words have become usable and disposable things, like Kleenex. Or lawyers' arguments.

Clintonspeak is by no means limited to its namesake; it must infect all who rely on it, all who are willing to accept this president's lie du jour, or at least don't want to be bothered by the inconvenient, stubborn facts.

Look at the language in the proposed resolution of censure that is supposed to satisfy the nagging requirements of truth, justice and the rule of law. That resolution is filled with the distinguishing feature of the political, ethical and legal discourse of our paltry time: clinton clauses.

The proposed censure asserts that the president "made false statements,'' but is careful not to say when, where, or how, and certainly not to specify that they were made under oath.

The resolution acknowledges that the president "wrongfully took steps to delay discovery of the truth,'' but is prudently vague about whether those steps obstructed justice or abused the powers of his office.

What we have here are words as vague and worthless as Bill Clinton's own. How can this censure amount to anything but a little sound and fury offered to placate the American people's nagging, half-forgotten sense of justice?

It is the stubbornness of that historical memory, that Jungian archetype in our collective national conscience, that the president's defenders obviously hope to placate without satisfying. That is the purpose of all the Clintonspeak and the clinton clauses and tin apologies that now are remaking the old Democracy, the party of Jefferson and Jackson, into the party of perjury and polls. For the standards of behavior we are willing to accept in our leaders inevitably become our own.

The language of this resolution of "censure'' reflects Bill Clinton's own way with words, with truth and with honor. This proposal is an exercise not in moral resolution but in political evasion.

The consequences of some things -- like sustained mendacity -- cannot be forever evaded. Or in Mr. Lincoln's better and simpler words, you can't fool all the people all the time. Polls change, truth does not. Not even in these deconstructed times.

There are few if any surprises here. Events now unfold as if foreordained. It could all have been foreseen --the president's practiced duplicity, the lie as a way of life.

I should have known. Going back through the yellowed files, I find a quote from a column of mine written in 1992, when Bill Clinton was still running for the office he would disgrace: "There is something almost inhuman in his smoother responses that sends a shiver up the spine. It is not the compromises he has made that trouble so much as the unavoidable suspicion that he has no great principles to compromise.''


12/10/98:The latest miracle cure: CensurePlus
12/03/98: Sentences at an airport Sentences at an airport
12/03/98: Games lawyers play
12/01/98: Ms. Magoo strikes again, or: Janet Reno and the law
11/26/98: The most American holiday
11/23/98: Same game, another round
11/18/98: Guide to the perplexed
11/09/98: A vote for apathy
11/03/98: Global village goes Clintonesque
11/02/98: Farewell to all that
10/30/98: New budget, same swollen government
10/26/98: Of life on the old plantation -- and death in the Middle East
10/22/98: Starr Wars (CONT'D)
10/19/98:Another retreat: weakness invites aggression
10/16/98: Profile in courage
10/14/98: A new voice out of Arkansas
10/09/98: Gerald Ford, Mr. Fix-It?
10/07/98: Impeachment Journal: Dept. of Doublespeak
10/01/98: The new tradition
9/25/98: Mr. President, PLEASE don't resign
9/23/98: The demolition of meaning
9/18/98: So help us G-d; The nature of the crisis
9/17/98: First impressions: on reading the Starr Report
9/15/98: George Wallace: All the South in one man
9/10/98: Here comes the judge
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