Headline: All about Bill

Posted: Jun 22, 2004 12:00 AM

 Former President Bill Clinton told "60 Minutes" Sunday night: "It cost over $70 million, and we were exonerated in Whitewater, exonerated in the Vince Foster suicide, exonerated in the campaign finance reform, exonerated in the White House travel office deal, exonerated in the FBI file case. The judge ruled that the Jones case had absolutely no merit." It was a virtuoso performance -- unchallenged by interviewer Dan Rather -- by Bill Clinton, professional victim.

 Figure it all depends on what the definition of "exoneration" is. Clinton is right, the special prosecutor's office never indicted either Clinton or his wife for breaking the law in the collapse of the failed Whitewater real- estate development (which contributed to losses paid by taxpayers when the connected Madison Savings & Loan collapsed.) Still, the 14 Whitewater-related convictions of such notables as former Clinton aide Webster Hubbell and the special prosecutor's assertion that both Clintons made "factually inaccurate" statements discredit the "exoneration" claim.

 Yes, a special prosecutor reported that (former Clinton aide) Foster killed himself -- thus discrediting conspiracy theorists who suggested Foster was murdered. But that's because the probe did what it was supposed to do -- figure out how and why Foster died.

 Clinton was hardly exonerated for his fund-raising excesses. In fact, some 14 Democratic donors and fund-raisers pleaded guilty to fund-raising abuses, many more invoked the Fifth Amendment rather than testify before the Senate, while others simply fled the country.

 As C. Boyden Gray, counsel to the first President Bush, quipped of Clinton's exoneration claim, "By that measure, Reagan was exonerated in Iran-Contra." The travel-office scandal? Since it was legal for the new administration to fire employees in order to replace them with cronies, the investigation didn't find any criminal wrongdoing. Still, the Republican chair of the investigating committee William F. Clinger observed that the Clinton White House "abused its powers to smear innocent citizens." 

 Clintonia was exonerated in the probe of a low-level White House personnel official who obtained confidential FBI files of former Republican staffers. But the probe was necessary. As Barbara Comstock, who worked on the investigation, noted, Washington has to investigate when confidential FBI files might be used for partisan reasons. "People forget. You had The New York Times and The Washington Post calling for the Whitewater investigation, calling for the campaign finance investigation," she noted.

 Yet Clinton only sees a vast right-wing conspiracy.

 Clinton was correct in his assertion that Judge Susan Webber Wright found "no merit" in Paula Jones' sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton. The judge was right: Jones failed to establish that she suffered economic damages after (and if) then-Arkansas Gov. Clinton made crude advances toward her, then a state employee. The judge didn't say Clinton did or didn't do it.

 It's interesting to note that, while seeming to talk off the top of his head, Clinton smartly dispensed with the term "exonerate" when he mentioned Jones. If the Jones case was so wrong, asked former Deputy U.S. Attorney Victoria Toensing, "Why then did Clinton reach a plea agreement with (special prosecutor) Robert Ray in return for no charges being brought?" (Clinton admitted to misleading prosecutors and accepted a five-year suspension of his Arkansas law license and a $25,000 fine on his last day in office.) No exoneration there.

 It's odd. After all the pre-show hype about how contrite Bill Clinton was, the word on Bubba's mind was "exonerate." Contrite? Asked about his pardon of gazillionaire financier Marc Rich, Clinton said he regretting the pardon because he took heat for it, but, "Nobody's yet made a case to me that it was the wrong decision."

 Does Clinton really expect the public to believe that no one ever told Clinton that pardoning fugitives rewards criminals fleeing the justice system? Clinton groupies, no doubt, have been reading this column and muttering to themselves that no matter what facts undermine Clinton, polls showed that voters supported him, and that voters had nothing but contempt for Clinton's over-the-top critics.

 This is true. Most voters believed that Special Prosecutor Ken Starr's report was indefensibly invasive and were put off by the large number of investigations into the Clinton administration. Of course, Clinton's genius has been in getting the public to root for him even when everyone knew he probably was lying. So why stop now?