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The Presidency

How to End Clinton's Mess and Be Happy

October 04, 1998|Stephen Gillers | Stephen Gillers, professor of law at New York University, teaches legal ethics and evidence

NEW YORK — The second-most amazing fact about the looming impeachment of President Bill Clinton--next to the fact that it is looming at all--is the degree of disagreement over who to blame. Spend a week reading editorials and columns in leading newspapers and journals of opinion. Read the letters to the editor. Listen to shout shows and call-in shows. There are roughly six different positions, excluding the views of fiction writers and critics who are having a wonderful time deconstructing independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report as if it were a novel and reviewing the president's televised grand-jury testimony as if it were a film. Opinions are expressed with a passion characteristic of parental behavior at a Little League game.

These intense but discrepant views leave us all prisoners of impeachment until we can identify a common ground broad enough to support a compromise. But compromise won't work unless combatants believe their views are receiving due respect and fear they could wind up with less if they hold out for more. Let's summarize the various positions and then see if we can make a deal.

The Anti-Clintons: Clinton is a disgrace and, worse, an unindicted felon. He has no regard for the truth, only for what can be safely denied. It harms the nation for him to lead it. It will be corrosive for generations if we let him finish his term. Clinton's remorse is phony. Everything he does is an act because he believes in nothing except his own survival. Impeachment and conviction are necessary if the nation is to reaffirm its core values. We honor ourselves when we throw him out. Sure, Starr may not be a poster boy for prosecutorial moderation, but his faults are no excuse for Clinton's abysmal conduct.

The Anti-Starrs: The case against Clinton is based on sex and lies about sex, things he did as a man, not as a president. Without defending Clinton, the fact is that Starr, a right-wing ideologue, has behaved like a prosecutor in a totalitarian country, ignoring constitutional values, including privacy. Starr exceeded his jurisdiction in pursuing the Monica S. Lewinsky case, then set perjury traps for the president before the grand jury, whose evidence he illegally leaked. He did this while investigating "crimes" no other U.S. prosecutor would pursue. Starr is obsessed with Clinton's sex life. Clinton must remain in office, not only because the country elected him--and the country is in fine shape--but because removing Clinton will validate Starr's unconstitutional tactics, endangering us all.

The Process Supporters: The framers of the Constitution provided for this very situation more than 200 years ago. We must let the process take its course. It is described in the Constitution, which we fail to follow at our peril. Everyone involved--Starr, the courts, but most of all Congress--must understand that to turn the process to political advantage dishonors the Constitution no less than if we ignore the disturbing evidence Starr has amassed. We understand the desire for closure, but the process was not built for speed. It is cumbersome because the stakes are high. It demands investigation and deliberation. Waiting may be painful, but, in the long run, the country will be better off.

The Democratic Partisans: You should see it for what it is: an effort by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and conservative Republicans, in league with the Christian right, to exploit Clinton's troubles for political gain. They talk about bipartisanship, but they don't mean it. Their goal is to destroy Clinton, his policies and the Democrats by keeping this story on Page 1. They aim to elect a GOP president in 2000, while they hold on to both houses of Congress and possibly achieve the 60 Senate votes needed to stop Democratic filibusters. Then watch what they'll do with school prayer, abortion rights and social programs. We can also expect three Supreme Court vacancies after the 2000 election. Think Antonin Scalia in triplicate. Think Chief Justice Starr. We have no love for Clinton, but we stand with him to stop the far right.

The GOP Partisans: You should see it for what it is: an effort by mostly liberal Democrats to protect their discredited policies and hold on to power by embracing a damaged president, whom most of them never liked anyway, and by trying to shift blame to Starr, who simply obeyed the independent-counsel statute. It's our job to reveal Clinton for what he is and expose his adolescent erosion of the moral stature of the presidency. Luckily, we can win a vote of impeachment in the House. Maybe we don't have the 67 votes needed to convict in the Senate, though that could change if we pick up seats in November and Starr unearths more evidence, but this is not about the Senate. It's about unmasking the moral relativism that the Clintons brought to the White House. It's about exposing Clinton as ethically hollow, so voters will remember when they vote for president in 2000.

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