The Indianapolis News
September 17, 1998
Alan W. Dowd
The Office of Independent Counsel has released its long-anticipated report to Congress. Although many have dismissed the report as little more than a public diary of the President’s personal problems, the 445-page referral will likely illustrate that Bill Clinton’s personal problems are only symptoms of an overall pattern of corruption. Indeed, the President’s problems—and this unfolding political melodrama—began long before Monica Lewinsky became a White House intern.
In the fall of 1992, as rumors of adultery, drug use, draft-avoidance, and political corruption in the Arkansas governor’s office swirled around the Clinton campaign, George Bush and Ross Perot openly questioned Bill Clinton’s character. Trying to deflect those charges and defuse the character issue, Governor Clinton responded with a seemingly-innocuous phrase that spoke volumes: "I intend to change the character of the presidency."
Six years later, Bill Clinton has realized that dubious goal.
For most of his presidency, we have coped with his lies and broken promises. His would be the "most ethical administration in history." Ironically, the very opposite is true. The parade of names trailing behind this administration is a monument to unethical behavior: Mike Espy, Alexis Herman, and the late Ron Brown have all been investigated or indicted for parleying their cabinet positions into cash kick-backs. Hazel O’Leary used the Energy Department as a personal travel agency, wasting nearly $5 million on 16 overseas junkets.
Henry Cisneros lied to the FBI about bribing his mistress. Roger Altman and Bernard Nussbaum lied to Congress. Web Hubbell was indicted for tax evasion and over-billing his clients. Craig Livingstone illegally obtained nearly 1,000 FBI files on the President’s political enemies and developed a taxpayer-funded database for obvious political uses.
Janet Reno is inching closer to naming a special prosecutor to look into the campaign activities of Vice President Gore and former White House aide Harold Ickes. FBI Director Louis Freeh now says that campaign fund-raising crimes may lead beyond Gore and into the Oval Office. Yet, the President’s attorney general stubbornly refuses to appoint an independent counsel to investigate his role, deftly using the very fact that she’s appointed so many in the past as cover for her reticence in the present.
Then there is the President’s Oval Office affair and consequent coverup, which spawned perjury and obstruction of justice. Seven months after scolding us into believing his initial denials of an affair with "that woman — Ms. Lewinsky," the President admitted that he had "misled the American people" and indeed had an inappropriate relationship with a White House intern. Backed into a corner by a mountain of evidence, a tenacious prosecutor, and his own lies, the President finally conceded that his testimony, comments, and silence had given a "false impression."
Through it all, from Jones and Lewinsky to Travelgate and Filegate, the President has deployed a fleet of lawyers and advisors to deceive the American people, obstruct the pursuit of justice, and savage officers of the court, members of Congress, and innocent bystanders. As a consequence of this pattern of lies and corruption, history will no doubt file the Clinton presidency alongside Grant’s, Harding’s, and Nixon’s, each infamous for its own brand of abuse and arrogance.
But today, we confront more than Bill Clinton’s broken promises; we are forced to cope with the one promise he has kept: Because he succeeded in changing the character of the presidency, our national dialogue includes debates over what constitutes sex. Because of him, words and behaviors that make many of us blush have been added to our political discourse. Because of him, morning newspapers may soon arrive at the front door wrapped in brown paper. Evening newscasts are R-rated.
Because he changed the character of the presidency, all three branches of the government have succumbed to paralysis. Recall that it was a Democratic Congress that began investigating the failed land deal known as Whitewater back in 1993. Republicans have done little more than follow the trails that were uncovered before they won control of Congress.
Recall that it was a Democratic attorney general who appointed half-a-dozen independent counsels in the wake of these investigations. Recall that Kenneth Starr worked under the statutory authority of Congress and the direct authority of the Justice Department.
As the President’s surrogates mounted a political defense that clogged the airwaves and newspapers with half-truths and outright lies, his flailing legal defense clogged federal courthouses from Little Rock to Washington with frivolous appeals. His assertions of special privileges were doomed to failure, and when swatted aside by the Courts, they effectively weakened the power of his successors.
By changing the character of the presidency, Bill Clinton also undermined U.S. foreign policy. Friends and foes alike have questioned the timing of last month’s missile attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan. If he can lie about an affair with "that woman," they ask, what’s to stop him from lying about affairs of state? Hopefully, our next president will be able to repair this breach of trust.
In the end, the impeachment or resignation of our 42nd president will have less to do with sex than with lying and abusing power. Judge Starr’s report will bring that clearly into focus. Bill Clinton will be forced to leave office not just because he broke his word and broke the law, but because he kept his word. He indeed changed the character of the presidency.