Commentary: The playing fields of history

By PETER ROFF, UPI National Political Analyst  |  April 12, 2002 at 4:49 PM
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WASHINGTON, April 11 (UPI) -- If any one event worked to put an end to the Clinton years, it was Sept. 11. The sudden, shocking obliteration of two of the world's tallest buildings, a piece of the Pentagon and nearly 3,000 people drove the scandals of the Clinton years out of the public conscience.

Before that, the former president was an ever-present subject for discussion even after he left office.

Almost six months later, Clinton talk is back in vogue, but only among the people who are fighting to establish how the historical record of his presidency will be written.

There are, on the one hand, the supporters.

Full of vigor and vitriol, they are busy putting forward the argument that what was true about the allegations wasn't important and that what was important in the allegations wasn't true. It is a difficult proposition but one made easier by six years of almost non-stop repetition of the theme.

Earlier this week Paul Begala, the former Clinton political strategist who now shares co-hosting duties on CNN's Crossfire, said on air that most of the Clinton administration officials who were accused of, investigated for, and tried on corruption charges were found "innocent."

This of course is very different from being found "not guilty" as the American system of jurisprudence is based on the presumption of innocence -- with the state required to prove guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt."

It is a stretch to argue that innocence can be proven, especially in cases where a central witness refuses -- as Susan McDougal did -- to answer questions posed by prosecutors while under oath or when a central witness -- as in the case of the former president -- deliberately parses words to hide the truth.

On the other hand, there are the Clinton opponents who have, of late, found themselves on the defensive.

Tired, beaten and defeated, they would rather move on to other issues than continue the fight.

Having failed to prove, according to the accepted legal standard and the understood political standard, that lies were told, money was misappropriated and justice obstructed, they no longer have the stomach to argue the facts.

Their withdrawal has left the field of battle in possession of those who would craft the historical record of events in a manner that would exonerate the accused and convict the accusers.

As surveys taken at the time showed, and no doubt would still show today, many Americans believe that Bill Clinton, his wife Hillary and many of those around them were -- to use shorthand -- guilty of something.

This is not sufficient to convict in a court of law but it is a determinate of outcomes in the court of public opinion.

Because prosecutors and -- in the Senate impeachment trial -- members of the U.S. Congress were unable to convince judges and juries beyond a reasonable doubt that members of the administration had committed crimes, the president was not deprived of his office or his liberty.

This is the appropriate outcome. But victory and vindication are not the same things.

For all the talk of conspiracy and perjury traps, it remains that the evidence gathered in the independent counsel's investigation clearly establishes that President Clinton sought to mislead those who were attempting to ascertain certain facts about his relationship with Paula Jones, a former Arkansas state employee, and Monica Lewinsky, a former White House intern.

For many years, we have all been led to believe that an effort to obstruct justice -- even when the underlying allegations are without merit -- is an offense against the law. That standard went out the window where Clinton and others around him were concerned.

It may be that they successfully employed a conspiracy of silence. It may be that the American people simply tired of the whole thing, taking the steam out of the political side of the argument. In any event, the cause of justice was not well served by the outcome.

President Clinton's supporters were very clever when they sought to and succeeded in redefining the underlying issue as "sex." Middle Americans are, whatever their private passions, generally uncomfortable with public discussion of morality and sex.

Except, as history will hopefully record, it wasn't about "sex" or sex alone. It was about truth, honesty, and the law.

When President Clinton misled representatives of legal system, he perverted American justice. The issue over which the perversion occurred is immaterial, or should be. The fundamental question -- whether the president of the United States is bound by the same laws as everyone else -- is still unresolved.

The legal community, as evidenced by Clinton's ejection from the U.S. Supreme Court bar and the loss of his Arkansas license to practice law, seems to be saying, "Yes, he is."

The political community of the former president's defenders seems to be saying, "Well, it all depends... "

This kind of selectivity is dangerous to the continued health of America's institutions. Either we are all bound by the law or, for practical purposes, none of us are. The continuing efforts to rewrite history to reflect the view that all the charges leveled against everyone were baseless and the product of a political conspiracy ignores the fact that the president, even though he will not say so explicitly, did have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky, and then he lied about it in a forum where the law compels everyone to tell the truth. All else is commentary.

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