Clinton's badge of honor

Posted: Jun 21, 2004 12:00 AM

   Bill Clinton told "60 Minutes" in his promotional appearance for his book, "My Life," that he wears his impeachment as a "badge of honor." As far as honors go, it's a far cry from the Distinguished Service Cross or the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But Clinton has to pretend to cherish it. It is imperative for his legacy that he portray his impeachment as illegitimate, as the work of hateful fanatics.

    The truth is that the scandals and investigations that built toward Clinton's impeachment -- from Whitewater to the China fund-raising scandal to Monica Lewinsky -- were a product of the world created by post-Watergate liberals. They created the independent-counsel statute; they celebrated an adversarial press; they wrote exacting campaign-finance rules; they instituted an anti-sexual-harassment regime in the workplace -- and then they supported an attempt to defy all of it when it inconvenienced Bill Clinton.

    Clinton reauthorized the independent-counsel statute almost immediately upon taking office, calling it "a foundation stone for the trust between the government and our citizens." The point of this "foundation stone" was to initiate investigations at the slightest instigation. That is why it was Clinton's own attorney general, Janet Reno, who set in motion independent-counsel investigations of the Whitewater controversy, Vince Foster's suicide, Travelgate, Filegate and corruption allegations surrounding six cabinet officials and White House aides.

    On "60 Minutes," Clinton maintained there was nothing to the Whitewater investigation, the probe into fraudulent schemes in Arkansas and whether the Clintons were involved. Not quite. Independent counsel Ken Starr successfully prosecuted Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker and the Clintons' partners in Whitewater, Jim and Susan McDougal, and won guilty pleas from or convictions of 12 other people.

    Clinton complains that Starr's work took so long. Whose fault is that? Starr's investigation dragged on partly because of Clinton's stonewalling. After the Democratic screaming about the savings and loan scandal in the early 1990s -- Democratic Party Chairman Ron Brown called it "one of the biggest scandals in the history of our country" -- the Clintons were embarrassed about their dealings with Jim McDougal, a crooked S&L operator, and wanted to tell less rather than more about them.

    Starr was winding up his investigation when the Monica scandal hit. Clinton had lied under oath about his relationship with Lewinsky in sworn testimony in the Paula Jones sexual-harassment case, and suggested to others that they lie. The very purpose of the independent-counsel statute was to keep presidents from committing such crimes against the truth. Starr wouldn't have been doing his job if he ignored Clinton's conduct in the case.

    Did Clinton really lie? Of course. In the "60 Minutes" interview, he cited Judge Susan Webber Wright, who presided over the Jones case. He didn't mention that she ruled that there is "simply no escaping the fact" that Clinton gave "intentionally false" answers to questions from the Jones lawyers in a way "designed to obstruct the judicial process." Clinton's lawyer, Bob Bennett, warned him prior to the Jones deposition: "The only thing you have to worry about is if you lie in there. The crazies will come after you. They'll try to impeach you if you lie."

    It wasn't just "the crazies." Nearly everyone agreed on the need to undertake an impeachment inquiry. Thirty-one House Democrats voted for the Republican inquiry plan, and the rest voted for an alternative Democratic plan. There was consensus in the country for punishing Clinton. In December 1998, Clinton himself asked to be censured. A proposed Democratic censure resolution stated he had "egregiously failed" his constitutional oath, "violated the trust of the American people" and "dishonored the office."

    People wanted Clinton rebuked, but not removed from office -- and so impeachment served as a kind of monster censure resolution, expressing the country's disgust at the president's conduct and his lies. If that's something Clinton considers a "badge of honor," well then, he has a very idiosyncratic notion of honor.