The unimpeachability of Bill

Posted: Feb 14, 2001 12:00 AM
In the eternal matter of Bill Clinton, everybody did something wrong last week. It was wrong for Morgan Stanley to have invited him to speak; it was wrong for Morgan Stanley to have apologized for doing so; it was wrong for Sen. Arlen Specter to have broached, however hypothetically, the possibility of another impeachment; and it was wrong for the ex-Lady Rich to refuse to answer a congressional committee's questions about her philanthropy.

Ex-presidents are celebrities. The lecture agent who booked Clinton with Morgan Stanley reacted defensively when Morgan Stanley's chairman broadcast his apology. The agent said that someone who had been present reported that the speech was one of the best he had ever heard.

There is, of course, the inbuilt skepticism in people who hear such tributes. The speaking event fell at the high moment of public indignation over Clinton's valedictories, which included the pardon of the rich felon, Clinton's departure from town with White House silver in his pocket, and ablutions of self-love at every way station between the White House and Chappaqua. To hear the selfsame guy give a speech in an intimate setting would cause the same kind of excited drooling one might expect from someone who heard a speech by Errol Flynn the day after he was charged with drunken rape.

On the other hand, if your firm invites somebody to speak to your group, you should clam up about it. The head of Morgan Stanley said: "We clearly made a mistake. First, the decision did not receive the proper review within the firm." What is a proper review of an ex-president invited to speak? That he didn't bring peace to the Middle East? "Second, we should have been far more sensitive to the strong feelings of our clients over Mr. Clinton's personal behavior as president." Well, the American voting public should have been more sensitive to Mr. Clinton's personal behavior when they voted for him.

It does nothing very much to stimulate confidence in Morgan Stanley that its speaking committee thought Bill Clinton a great catch -- until he pardoned Marc Rich. Having invited Clinton, they should have shut up about it.

Then, at about the same time, we got the contribution from Sen. Specter, who let drop the question, Might it be wise to consider impeaching Mr. Clinton again?

You can't be serious, senator! Open up that can of worms?

The reason for an impeachment would be, the senator said, the matter of "emoluments." What exactly does that mean? Well, if you stole a million dollars while president, you can be impeached for doing so even though you've left office.

Yes, but having left office, you are no longer an officer of the United States, and therefore Congress has no authority over you. What do you do about that?

Well, the rooters suggested, an impeachment could bar the president from serving again. Assuming this were done -- however inconceivable -- it would be laughed out of court as a gesture in retroactive vindictiveness.

On the other hand, if it were established that a crime had been committed, why would you need the awful formality of a congressional impeachment? If it were established beyond a reasonable doubt that there had been a bribe -- I, Denise Rich, will feed $1 million into Democratic coffers if you, Bill Clinton, will agree to pardon my ex-husband -- a district attorney would be all that's needed, because bribes are criminal offenses.

Now in refusing to answer questions before a congressional committee, Ms. Rich did a provocative thing. The next step is for the committee to grant her immunity from any action that traces to any testimony she gives. The way would then be legally clear to require her to answer such questions as the committee thought relevant to its inquiry. Of course, there is the Susan McDougal escape. That woman went to jail for 18 months because she simply refused to answer questions about Bill. And of course, she was pardoned.

But you watch -- the Clinton tidal wave will begin to move back, washing away all little remonstrances and misgivings and alarms about violations of the Constitution, the laws and the Ten Commandments as pettifoggery, desperate twitches of clerical resistance to the royal parade of William Jefferson Clinton through American history.