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Censure and Move On

December 01, 1998

The House Judiciary Committee, nearing the end of its inquiry into whether President Clinton should be impeached, plans today to question a number of convicted perjurers, some of whom have been jailed for their crime. The object of this exercise is presumably to remind everyone, as if Americans don't know it, that lying under oath is a serious offense.

Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr believes that Clinton lied under oath, both in his deposition in the Paula Jones civil suit and later before a grand jury, and most members of Congress as well as most other Americans appear to agree with him. The issue now is whether such dishonesty is a ground for impeachment. And if not impeachment, then what? It's time that good sense seize both pragmatic Republicans and Democrats. There is only one logical and fair, if not necessarily fully satisfying, end to this. Consider:

--Clinton continues to deny that he perjured himself. His latest denials came in his responses to 81 questions submitted to him by the Judiciary Committee. His answers to questions about specific instances of alleged wrongdoing are models of lawyerly evasiveness and semantic dissembling. At times a man who is legendary for his retentive memory pleads an inability to remember.

--Clinton acknowledges that on occasion he did mislead friends and associates. Republicans on the committee are unhappy with these responses, but they can hardly be surprised. This deep into the water Clinton is not going to admit lying under oath. However it affected the impeachment process, such a confession would expose him to possible criminal prosecution once he left office.

--By mid-month, the committee is expected to send one or more articles of impeachment to the House floor. After that, the uncertainty increases. Depending on who's counting, from 15 to 50 Republicans are inclined to oppose impeachment. Without their votes the articles can't pass. As far as the Constitution is concerned that would end the matter; there would be no referral to the Senate for an impeachment trial. But even a majority of Democrats now seem to accept that the House's failure to impeach should not be the final act in this drama.

Most Americans are bored beyond caring with the Monica Lewinsky affair and the whole Starr investigation. But most also know that their president has behaved with self-indulgent recklessness that disgraces his office and demonstrates a disregard for truth that dishonors the rule of law. Impeachment by the House may fail, and certainly there is no chance the Senate would vote to convict Clinton and so end his presidency. But some form of chastisement is plainly required to bring this sordid matter to a responsible conclusion. Clinton has done wrong, and Congress should go on record expressing its revulsion.

What such a sense-of-Congress resolution is called does not really matter. Let Congress censure, rebuke, condemn, denounce, reproach, whatever. The important thing is that Clinton not escape the public bipartisan expression of scorn that his behavior unarguably merits. Washington should do this, and then have mercy on the rest of the country and let it go.

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