The Washington Times

There is already a lot to say about the 43rd president of the United States, and I am looking forward to getting started on the chronicles of an administration that looks to have embarked on the ambitious project of defining a conservative mainstream politics that supersedes (while incorporating many elements of) the ideological conservatism of the Reagan-Gingrich era. This is a big deal, folks, and the future of the GOP is riding on the outcome.

Unfortunately, however, we’ve got some old business to wrap up this week with regard to the 42nd president of the United States. Many Republicans, it’s fair to say, regarded the experience of watching Bill Clinton’s casually lingering departure from Washington Saturday the way patients at the oral surgeon’s regard the extraction of an impacted wisdom tooth. But more important was the agreement Mr. Clinton struck the day before with Independent Counsel Robert Ray, in effect ending the investigation that threatened Mr. Clinton’s indictment on perjury charges once he left office.

Mr. Ray settled the business by obtaining a “consent order” from Mr. Clinton. In it, the president acknowledged that he knowingly violated the discovery orders of Judge Susan Weber Wright in the Paula Jones case. He indicated that while he tried to walk a line between acting lawfully and testifying falsely about his relations with Monica Lewinsky in his deposition in the Jones case, “certain of my responses . . . were false.” He agreed to a suspension of his Arkansas law license for five years, to pay a $25,000 fine to the Arkansas Committee on Professional Conduct and to forgo seeking reimbursement under the Independent Counsel Act of his legal fees related to the Lewinsky investigation.

One of the harder tasks I have undertaken over the past couple years is to persuade some of my conservative friends that Bill Clinton didn’t get away with it. In their reading, he got away with it by routinely stonewalling, contesting and obstructing the independent counsel investigation since its inception, by waging partisan warfare to beat the impeachment charges in the Senate, and now, of course, by escaping indictment and therefore legal accountability for his actions.

The impression that Mr. Clinton got away with it has been immeasurably aided by Mr. Clinton’s own words. He has tirelessly portrayed himself first as the victim of an overzealous prosecutor, later as the defender of the United States Constitution against a partisan assault by his political enemies. He maintained throughout that whatever his transgressions, they were of a private nature, with no bearing on his conduct in office. And, of course, he endured, staying as promised to the last hour of the last day of his term.

He has also been described, in press accounts attributed to anonymous staff and friends, as feeling that he has suffered much. As it happens, there is nothing more grating to people who feel he has suffered barely at all than his own sense that the treatment meted to him was unduly harsh. But, in the end, the view that Mr. Clinton got away with it is wrong. And here’s why. The story of the Clinton scandals begins with the fact of his impeachment, not with the circumstances of his acquittal. The story of his legal troubles begins not with the fact that he was never charged with any crime, but with the fact that he signed an 11th-hour agreement with prosecutors to escape indictment. The story is not the contention of his critics that he lied, it is his admission that he lied. And I might add that there is no story whatsoever about political reprisals inflicted by the electorate on his tormentors.

Throughout, the critics of Mr. Clinton have been bedeviled by the spin from his cadre of defenders, under the entirely mistaken impression that Mr. Clinton’s own spin constitutes the last word on any of these subjects. It does not. What will linger is just how much spinning Mr. Clinton had to do. I think the Ray agreement does what it needed to do to reinforce the points outlined here. Most of the fictions propounded by the president and in his behalf have now been exposed as such by his own admission. As for what history will think of his closing argument in this matter – that he tried his darndest to tell the truth but, alas, failed – I’m willing to take a chance on that.

To return to the subject of the 43rd president, Mr. Ray has also spared George W. Bush the bother of considering a pardon for Mr. Clinton, including the dicey question of issuing a prospective pardon in order to derail a possible indictment and end the independent counsel investigation. That was a substantial public service to the new administration (and would have been one equally so were we now at the beginning of the Gore administration). The internal debate over a pardon would have been a paralyzing distraction for the new administration until (inevitably, in my view) the pardon was issued – at what political cost, no one could speculate.

I do wish Mr. Ray could have held out for no reimbursement for Clinton legal fees incurred during the entirety of the independent counsel investigation, not just in relation to the Lewinsky investigation. The idea behind the reimbursement provision of the law is to make whole those who have been entirely exonerated by an investigation, the test of which is no indictment. And if you are indicted, you aren’t eligible to be reimbursed for lawyer bills in areas of investigation for which you were not indicted. But this is a quibble in relation to the bigger picture. The whole thing ends with Mr. Clinton’s admission of the plain facts. They do him no good, nor will they ever.