Changing the Story on the Last Page

Francis X. Cline - NY Times - January 21, 2001

IT was Monica Lewinsky's first lawyer, William Ginsburg, who first tried to wax existential about the sex and mendacity scandal as it began to spill from the White House.

"No one ever lies," he amiably informed a reporter during the initial burst of salacious shock. "People often do what they have to do to make their story sound right."

Thus was an appropriate libretto suggested for the opéra bouffe that followed. What played forth titillated, frightened and numbed the nation across the final three years of President Bill Clinton's incumbency, pursuing and staining him, it turned out, to his final day in office.

Forced to cut a deal with prosecutors to avoid the chance of indictment once he returned to ordinary citizenship on George W. Bush's inaugural stand, Mr. Clinton ended his eight years with an 11th-hour admission of what everyone had long concluded: that he had testified falsely early on in the sexual harassment lawsuit that led like a lit fuse to the impeachment explosion, with all its anguish and bitter political combat.

"I tried to walk a fine line between acting lawfully and testifying falsely," Mr. Clinton said in this final consent agreement, conceding in his lawyer-vetted mea culpa that, yes, he had managed to cross the line.

To the end, Clinton defenders denied any substantive wrongdoing. But still, Mr. Clinton, as mincingly artful as he has been along the fine line of his own language, agreed Friday to surrender his law license for five years and pay a $25,000 fine.

And so, in the rain-soaked closing hours of Mr. Clinton's time in power, scandal weary Americans were roused for one last surprise act. It was a sign-off scene that, as ever, strained good humor as much as civic patience. With the independent counsel finally backing off after five long years of assorted inquiries, the coda might be entitled: Hound of Heaven No Longer in Pursuit of Peck's Bad Boy. Or, perhaps: Enough Already.

Arriving celebrants for the iof Peck's Bad Boy. Or, perhaps: Enough Already.

Arriving celebrants for the inaugural of Mr. Bush were being greeted with one more outburst from that embarrassing Democrat whom they had come to town to finally depose as the nation's executive role model. Exasperation laced the celebratory air. Will no one rid the national stage of this miscreant and the finger-wagging denials from the bully pulpit. Gone, too, are such cherished potboiler moments of Americana as the outcry from Robert S. Bennett, Mr. Clinton's lawyer, upon hearing of the Lewinsky inquiry surreptitiously opened by Kenneth Starr, the Clinton nemesis: "I smell a rat!"

What followed across three years was not a drama, as some media workers insist. It was a very real though weird slice of political life. It may have been chock full of theatrical claptrap and harrowing soliloquies, but the fate of the president rested in the balance and some Republican antagonists were tarnished along with Mr. Clinton. Speaker-elect Robert L. Livingston quit on the cusp of power as his past adulteries surfaced in the muck- raking spirit that lashed the Capitol.

Representative Henry Hyde, the Republican impeachment manager, contended the final Clinton consent admission vindicates the impeachment as something other than "merely a political initiative." Mr. Hyde, long a figure of House rectitude, suffered disclosure of his own "youthful indiscretions" as the investigative sauce splashed from goose to gander. Two of his dedicated fellow managers were rejected by the voters last November. No wonder this final Clinton admission seemed to be measured by Republicans as the sackcloth-and-ashes touch needed after their suffering years of the president's hubris and breathtaking invincibility.

In his struggle with the truth, Mr. Clinton had to stand as president in some extraordinary and grueling encounters. There was his taped grand jury performance before Mr. Starr's inquisitors, later shown to the nation, in which he was by separate rounds argumentative and contrite, furious and crestfallen.

"I think he's sorry he got caught," said Miss Lewinsky, who turned out to be one of the cooler analysts of the affair that Mr. Clinton found comfort in emphasizing was not a full sexual affair.

"I assume you think he's a very intelligent man?" a House manager had asked her. "I think he's a very intelligent president," Ms. Lewinsky shot back. And this flesh-and- blood distinction drew laughter in the Senate replay as she came close to the heart of the matter for the watching public.

"I did what people do when they do the wrong thing," Mr. Clinton declared most sadly, most humanly, in his grand jury testimony. "I tried to do it when nobody else was looking."

But he left office fiercely proud about his national stewardship. He protected the distinction to the end, presenting his case for legacy Thursday, then releasing his legal admission Friday as the clock ran down.

"I have taken every step I can to end this matter," Mr. Clinton said, as if in final rebuttal of Matt Drudge, the cyberspace gossip columnist who once gleefully crowed, "It never ends."

While the lawyers were still negotiating the supposed last word on the Lewinsky scandal during the final hours of transition, Mr. Bush was asked about his predecessor's personal vulnerability. The next man in the Oval Office thought for a moment, then proposed a bit of mercy so that citizen Clinton might "move on and enjoy life and become an active participant in the American system."

Mr. Clinton left the capital city one final billet-doux, a list of presidential pardons, including Susan McDougal, who famously did time in chains during the Whitewater investigation, and Patty Hearst, the bank-bandit heiress from long-ago days of protest. With that, citizen Clinton departed the scene.

  • See Also: The Clemency Page