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Why Struggle to Defend So Lame a Duck?

The stonewalling and lying is damning evidence, even when it doesn't rise to the level of a crime.

September 14, 1998|GERALD F. UELMEN | Gerald F. Uelmen is a professor of law at Santa Clara University School of Law and a scholar of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University

In 1973, the Watergate scandal was forever linked to one of the most profitable pornographic movies ever produced, "Deep Throat." Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward nicknamed their informant after the movie title. Now, 25 years later, we are presented with a presidential scandal that results in a $40-million script for a porn flick. Call this one "Oval Orifice."

For President Clinton, the ignominy of starring in a high-priced, but low-grade porn flick will cost him his presidency. The man will never be able to light up a cigar again, without everyone in the room wondering where that cigar might have been. Every time he makes a phone call, the recipient will carefully listen for rustling under the desk. No president can survive the loss of dignity inflicted by Ken Starr's report to Congress.

There's nothing funny about this tragedy. But the bad jokes will keep coming, and the lurid snickers will follow Clinton everywhere he goes. The White House response argues that all the details about the sex are gratuitous, a deliberate effort to ruin Clinton's image. But Starr can't be faulted for a devastating demonstration that the president's claim that the Paula Jones testimony was technically accurate is largely frivolous and patently false. Clinton now has been reduced to a lose-lose situation. His defenses just dig deeper holes for himself.

Whether the report makes out a case of high crimes and misdemeanors is now largely irrelevant. It certainly makes a solid case of perjury in the Paula Jones suit. Everything else is a stretch. But the president will not be judged on whether the evidence achieves the requisite altitude. "If it doesn't reach, you can't impeach" is not a defense that will save him in the court of public esteem.

Even when the sexual explicitness is cleared away, what emerges from Starr's narrative is an appalling recklessness that defies the imagination. The casual nature of the sexual encounters with Monica Lewinsky lend strong credence to the claims of Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey. The American people are certainly entitled to ask themselves if they ever would have elected this man as president if they knew of this weakness. Clinton's adroitness at concealing it, and attacking the character of those who sought to expose it, now emerge as a continuing pattern of malicious deceit.

The most telling exchange in the whole report emerges from the grand jury testimony of Dick Morris. How ironic that the chief character witness against Clinton turns out to be the man who resigned as his political consultant after revelations that he made telephone calls to Clinton while consorting with a prostitute. Monica Lewinsky described Clinton talking with Morris by phone while engaged in sexual activity with her. Clinton and Morris apparently were made for each other.

Morris testified to a conversation after Clinton's testimony in the Paula Jones case, when allegations of the Lewinsky affair first surfaced. Clinton admitted that he "slipped up" and asked Morris' advice. Morris recommended his ultimate solution for any moral quandary: Take a public poll. Measure the voters' willingness to forgive confessed adultery. When the poll showed voters were willing to forgive the president for adultery, but not for perjury, Morris recommended against a public confession or explanation. Clinton replied, "Well, we just have to win, then." All the subsequent lies take on a different cast in the glow of Morris' testimony. They weren't about "protecting the family" or avoiding embarrassment. They were about "winning." That appears to be Clinton's moral compass.

Starr makes effective use of Clinton's public lies. While his attempt to elevate them to the status of high crimes and misdemeanors by themselves is not convincing, their chief value is that they completely disarm Clinton's defense. "Falsus in unum, falsus in omnibus." You can no longer believe a thing this man tells you is the way it goes in plain English. The stonewalling and lying is the most damning evidence of all, even when it doesn't rise to the level of a crime.

There may be a defense to be made, and it might even succeed. But it seems unlikely that demonstrating the lowness of Clinton's crimes will ever resurrect his political fortunes. The question most Democrats will be asking is whether the prize to be won justifies the pain of the effort. Why struggle mightily to retain the lamest duck who will ever waddle through the White House? Richard Nixon threw in the towel when there was hardly anyone left to defend him. Many promising political careers were ruined in defense of the indefensible. There won't be many Democrats who will want to stake their political future on a vigorous defense of a porn star.

Bill Clinton has secured his place in history. The president who modeled himself on John Kennedy turned out to have much in common with Richard Nixon. He is certainly the smartest 14-year-old boy ever elected to the presidency. He should resign, and let the healing begin.

There's plenty of material here for ongoing public angst that will even exceed the aftermath of Watergate. Does Bill Clinton symbolize a moral failing in which we all share? Is winning the only measure of right and wrong we now value? Forgiveness and redemption may win his salvation, but they cannot keep him in the Oval Office he has disgraced.

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