Post-scandal Clinton

Bob Woodward in his book, "Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate," writes of President Clinton's post-scandal efforts to rehabilitate himself while still in office.

He cites the bombing of Kosovo, calling it a "humanitarian" mission.

"Yet," he adds, "lingering in the background were the unavoidable suggestions that Clinton's actions were influenced by his need for personal atonement and his political desire to do something big and bold so historians would concentrate less on his impeachment."

And then in his final sentence of this valuable book, this icon of investigative journalism asks this question: "Had the scandals and investigations so defined and crippled the president, ingrained a sense of desperate struggle and blind determination, that he had lost his way?"

If Mr. Clinton's primary purpose in life now is to rehabilitate himself as a president - and there is no doubt in my mind that it is - then he has, indeed, lost his way.

His purpose as president should simply be to provide objective, selfless, guidance for this nation on domestic matters and in foreign affairs. Vindication should not be a part of decisionmaking.

Clinton, in an interview with Dan Rather, said that he was going to do everything in his power to drive his impeachment from the first paragraph of his obituary.

This is the same president who brushed off his impeachment with this remark: "This is much to do about nothing. I survived the odds."

I wondered how this self-engrossed president would deal with the recent penalty meted out to him by Federal Judge Susan Webber Wright. She recently fined Clinton nearly $90,000 for making false statements about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky in the Paul Jones lawsuit.

The penalty followed Wright's finding Clinton in contempt of court "for giving false, misleading, and evasive answers that were designed to obstruct the judicial process."

Wright emphasized that "sanctions must be imposed not only to redress the misconduct of the president in this case, but to deter others who might themselves consider emulating the president of the US by engaging in misconduct that undermines the integrity of the judicial system."

These are words and this is a verdict that will stain the Clinton presidency. And he would be expected to feel the shame for this disgrace.

But then, several hours after Wright's decree was made public, I was seeing the president on TV. By this time, he had to know about his spanking by the judge, but he showed us a face of imperturbable, completely unconcerned self-confidence. No, I don't think he had to cry and fall on his sword. But it seemed to me that a little contrition was in order.

But this president doesn't do contrition, not easily anyway. Oh, yes, he finally got around to admissions of "making mistakes" and a request for forgiveness. But I shall always wonder whether he was truly sorry for his actions - or simply sorry he got caught.

I was reminded the other day by columnist and civil-liberty expert Nat Hentoff that an ethics complaint is pending before the Arkansas Supreme Court's Commission on Professional Conduct to disbar William Jefferson Clinton. And I, like Mr. Hentoff, am appalled that the American Bar Association should then have invited Clinton to be its speaker at its annual meeting last month.

But I am even more appalled that Clinton would have had the sheer guts to address lawyers who were drafters of the Code of Professional Responsibility - which cites perjury and obstruction of justice as offenses - that has been adopted by the courts in nearly every state.

So it is that I believe the president in trying to make a comeback in a very calculated and single-purposed way, has, indeed, lost his way in the meaning Woodward is indicating: That Clinton's initiatives and activities, at home and abroad, are so driven by hopes of improving his personal image that they have brought about a presidential disorientation that has impaired his ability to lead.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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