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Jewish World Review /Sept. 16, 1998 / 25 Elul, 5758

Ben Wattenberg

Ben Anatomy of a cover-up


He is covering up a cover-up.

And he has covered up the cover-up before.

In late December, 1993, Betsey Wright went down to Little Rock to damage control the "troopergate" exposes that were to be published imminently in the Los Angeles Times and the American Spectator. While those stories are remembered now for their sexual content, it was not embarrassing tales about the president's extramarital adventures that impelled Wright's trip.

State Trooper Danny Ferguson had made a serious charge in David Brock's (now regretted, but not refuted) Spectator article: Before publication of the stories, the President had telephoned his former security guard to offer him a federal job in exchange for helping to quash the stories.

Seeking a retraction of this charge, Wright met with Ferguson at the Governor's mansion in Little Rock. She had a copy of Brock's article, with the section about the attempted bribe underlined.

A person who heard the Wright-Ferguson exchange [and asked not to be identified] gave this account to the Los Angeles Times. "She said, 'Don't worry about this infidelity stuff. We can handle that. But this (a reference to the underlined material) could get the man impeached.'"

Wright herself told the Times that while she doubted using any reference to impeachment, "Yes, the phone calls were the most problematic."

Wright succeeded in obtaining a sworn affidavit from Ferguson's lawyer stating that his client, Ferguson, had denied to him that the President had attempted to buy his silence with a federal job. While Ferguson would later say that his lawyer's affidavit was not meant to nullify his earlier statements in the Brock article, it created enough confusion to effectively defuse the charge. The President's attempted cover-up (the attempted bribe) had been effectively covered up.

The President's current cover-up of his Lewinsky cover-up mirrors the Ferguson episode with neat symmetry.

What is President Clinton now apologizing for? For the "infidelity stuff." Embarrassing, yes. But he can "handle that." He is not admitting, let alone apologizing for, perjury, obstruction of justice or witness tampering. Those admissions "could get the man impeached," or, worse, imprisoned after leaving office. The tacitly restricted scope of his current "apologies" are so Clintonesque they might as well have his DNA on them.

He is not apologizing for lying under oath in his Jones deposition. He is not apologizing to Monica Lewinsky for tacitly encouraging (or at the very least not discouraging) her perjurious affidavit in the Jones suit. He is not apologizing for lying to the grand jury a month ago (about whether he lied in his Jones deposition about what he groped and when he groped them). And he is not apologizing to Monica for implicitly claiming, now, that her grand jury testimony is perjurious.

He is apologizing for what is arguably none of the public's business (infidelity) while continuing to conceal what is inarguably the public's business (possibly criminal and impeachable lies and obstruction). In a bid to ward off impeachment, he has implicitly licensed the reign of sexual McCarthyism his defenders properly warned against for seven months.

Unlike before, this time Clinton has been caught in the act of covering up his cover-up. This time, he knows we know he is lying. He is asking us to forgive him his dalliance, while also asking us to allow him to continue to lie to us about his collateral perjury and obstruction. He is saying in effect, "I'm sorry for the affair, but I didn't, wink, 'lie' about it."

This time, he is asking for our complicity. He is asking us to knowingly assent to a series of false propositions about the extent of his guilt. Just like he did in January when he "asked" Betty Currie, "You were always there when she was there, right?" or "Monica came on to me, and I never touched her, right?" Unlike the unfortunate Currie, our jobs do not depend on our giving our assent. His does.

Will Clinton's attempted Currification of the country work? The early results are mixed. While there seems to be some public willingness to forgive and forget on the basis of the President's carefully lawyered apologies, Democratic congressional leaders Tom Daschle and Richard Gephardt are insisting that he come clean. The Congress may allow him to keep his office; but they won't agree to decide this fateful question on false premises.

We are in for an ugly few months. The steady din of impeachment talk in the press and Congress will drown out the President's efforts to "move forward" with a legislative agenda. Until his fate is decided, he will be a diminished President, more dependent than usual on the sufferance of an unfriendly Congress. He will remain the President in name and form. But in continuing to call him President, we may feel as if we are assenting under duress to a false proposition: Bill Clinton is the President of the United States, right?


9/09/98: Draft Joe Lieberman!
9/03/98: Get over it, folks
8/28/98: McGwire. Maris. Ruth. Clinton.
8/20/98: Is consuming a Big Mac eating?

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank." Daniel Wattenberg, who wrote this week's column, writes regularly for The Weekly Standard and is a contributing editor for George.