Thu, Sept. 19

Should Clinton be indicted?

Our long national soap opera is supposed to be over in eight more months, but Independent Counsel Robert W. Ray may extend it by indicting President Clinton when he leaves office.

On balance, I hope Ray decides not to, if all he can charge Clinton with is perjury for making false statements in the Monica Lewinsky case.

But it’s a very close call. As Clinton proved once again before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, he is unrepentant about the damage he’s caused to the country.

He admits only to making “a terrible personal mistake” — by which he presumably means only his sexual involvement with Lewinsky.

Beyond that, he claims, he is a victim — no, a hero. At the ASNE, he referred favorably to two recent books, one by Jeffrey Toobin and another by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons, clearly indicating that he considers himself the unfair target of what his wife once called “a vast right-wing conspiracy.”

Indeed, there is some evidence that his enemies in Arkansas and Washington — including Paula Jones’ lawyers and ex-Independent Counsel Ken Starr — did conspire to set a “perjury trap” for him.

It’s an interesting question — why Clinton has so many enemies. He asserts it’s because he’s doing political and social justice, and conservatives hate him for it.

I think that’s baloney. I think he drives moralists to distraction because he commits one deceit and sexual excess after another and constantly gets away with it. They become obsessed trying to make “the rules” apply to him.

But regardless of his enemies’ motives, Clinton did lie in his deposition in the Paula Jones case. Federal Judge Susan Webber Wright found him in contempt of court for that. He has paid a fine, not apologized.

He went on to tell the country bald-faced lies about having sex with Lewinsky. With months to think about it, he then premeditatedly repeated his falsehoods under oath to a federal grand jury.

For that and for alleged obstruction of justice, Clinton was impeached by the House. Of course, he was acquitted by the Senate.

“I am not ashamed of the fact that they impeached me,” he said to the ASNE. In fact, he said, “I am proud of what we did there because I think we saved the Constitution of the United States.”

This claim is so breathtakingly outrageous, it gives a hint why people become Clinton-haters. This man plans to rewrite history to cast himself alongside Abraham Lincoln, as though beating the Lewinsky rap is equivalent to preserving the Union.

Clinton asserted that impeachment was “one of the major chapters in my defeat of the revolution” led by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., as though the GOP majority elected in 1994 somehow was illegitimate, like the Confederacy.

In fact, Republicans still control Congress. And a new Pew poll indicates that by 49 percent to 33 percent, voters say that a member who voted in favor of impeachment deserves re-election.

Clinton did good work defeating the excesses of the Gingrich revolution. But Republicans also forced him to take a moderate course that has served him well politically. Impeachment had nothing to do with policy.

Moreover, it is simply false for Clinton to say that the Constitution is stronger because of what he did. To save his own skin, he repeatedly asserted prerogatives of the presidency — and then lost them in court, permanently weakening the office.

Henceforth, thanks to Clinton, presidents can be sued and forced to testify in civil cases. The White House legal staff is not covered by lawyer-client privilege in conversations with the president or first lady. Secret Service agents can be compelled to testify about what they hear. So can political staffers.

So Clinton’s shamelessness is one argument for his indictment. If he won’t admit wrongdoing, maybe a jury of his peers will straighten out the record for him.

Another argument flows from the statement of numerous Democratic senators and House members that his offenses didn’t rise to the level of high crimes meriting impeachment and removal — but were ordinary crimes subject to normal judicial process. I made this argument, too.

If Ray has any new evidence — say, of alleged obstruction of justice or attempts to silence witnesses — I’d be for indicting Clinton.

But to rehash the Lewinsky lies all over again wouldn’t do the country any good. And if Clinton won at trial, he would once again claim victimization and vindication.

Better the soap opera should end on time and Clinton go down in history as America’s second impeached president — and with a personal disapproval rating of 60 percent.

Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.

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