Evasive Action

The parsings of Clinton's legal team don't add up.


In an appropriate if unintended gesture, my cat threw up on my copy of Bill Clinton's response to the Starr report. After reading the anticipatory rebuttal and the supplement released the next day, I'm feeling a little queasy myself.

Clinton attorney David Kendall and White House Counsel Charles Ruff complain that Kenneth Starr loaded his report with "lurid and salacious" details about the president's relationship with Monica Lewinsky. But surely it does not reflect well on the president that a straightforward description of his interactions with an underling in the workplace is considered too indecent for public consumption.

Kendall and Ruff show that the evidence for some of Starr's charges is inconclusive. It's not clear that Clinton "orchestrated or approved" the attempt to conceal some of his gifts to Lewinsky. And though his efforts to help her get a new job can be seen as a way of ensuring her silence, they could also have been motivated by guilt or affection.

The conversations in which Clinton encouraged White House secretary Betty Currie to affirm false statements about his relationship with Lewinsky are harder to explain away. Currie testified that on two occasions Clinton led her through an official version of events, saying things like:

"You were always there when she was there, right?"

"We were never really alone."

"Monica came on to me, and I never touched her, right?"

"You can see and hear everything, right?"

It's difficult to imagine an explanation for these conversations that is both innocent and plausible, and Kendall and Ruff do not offer one. Still, they say, the president cannot be guilty of witness tampering, since Currie was not listed as a witness in the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit, and at the time Clinton was not aware that Starr was looking into his relationship with Lewinsky.

But as the Starr report notes, it was reasonable to expect that Currie might be questioned in the Jones case, since her name had come up repeatedly. It was also reasonable to expect that the Lewinsky matter might become the focus of an official inquiry. In any event, Currie testified that the second conversation occurred on January 21, after the president knew about Starr's investigation.

The most nauseating part of Kendall and Ruff's rebuttal is the wild spinning and mad somersaults aimed at showing that Clinton did not really commit perjury in his civil deposition or his grand jury testimony. Predictably, they claim the scandal is just about sex. But according to the president, it's not even about that.

In Clinton's view, say Kendall and Ruff, what he did with Lewinsky did not amount to "sexual relations," "an extramarital sexual affair," or "a sexual relationship." Hence he could truthfully deny that he had any of those with her.

Yet the first page of the rebuttal announces, "The President has admitted he had an improper sexual relationship with Ms. Lewinsky." Since even Clinton's lawyers can't avoid using the term "sexual relationship" the way everyone else does, their claim that he merely gave "narrow answers to ambiguous questions" is audacious.

Even if we concede that the exact details of the president's encounters with Lewinsky are crucial, Clinton's portrait of her as a fluff girl–giving, but never receiving, sexual stimulation–is at odds not only with her testimony but with her contemporaneous reports to several other witnesses. Clinton also lied about things that do not hinge on an idiosyncratic definition of sex, including his memories of her visits and of the gifts they exchanged.

Perhaps sensing that the public does not buy the defense of Clinton's statements as "legally accurate," Ruff recently argued on Meet the Press that perjury is not an impeachable offense anyway: "Whatever the president did or whatever the president said, whether it was in January or in August, there simply is no basis for removing the president from office."

Congress may disagree. A recent paper from the Cato Institute notes that most constitutional scholars take the position that "indictable offenses fall within the class of impeachable offenses. There is a fundamental inconsistency, they argue, between a president's oath to faithfully execute the law and his having himself committed offenses indictable under that law."

I have to say I find that position compelling, even though it raises a prospect that is hard for me to view with equanimity: President Gore.

Now I really feel sick.