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The Clinton enigma

Gary Wills once wrote that "First in His Class" is "The best biography ever written about a president in office." And now the author of that book, David Maraniss, has given us "The Clinton Enigma," in which this Pulitzer Prize-winner underscores the president's moral failings.

I'm reading this book while being distracted by a new episode of Bill Clinton as the "Comeback Kid." Even while facing possible ouster by the Senate, the president was, for the moment, obscuring his morals-related crisis with a stemwinder of a State of the Union speech. But the problems of this impeached president have not gone away. They are immense, and his future remains murky. So back to the very relevant findings and observations of the perceptive Mr. Maraniss.

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He reminds us that Mr. Clinton promised that his would be the most ethical administration in history. Here Maraniss adds: "Whitewater, Lewinsky, two cabinet secretaries indicted, three more under investigation by special prosecutors, his hand-picked second-in-command at the Justice Department convicted and imprisoned, and investigators looking into the questionable fund-raising techniques used by Clinton and Vice President Gore during the 1996 presidential election campaign - it would be hard for anyone to argue that the promise was fulfilled."

Maraniss also notes how severely critical of Nixon Clinton was when, in 1974, he was running for the Arkansas governorship, "pounding away at the themes of ethics and morality." Clinton made a speech I'd never seen mentioned before, entitled, "Morality in Politics," in which he said: "Too many people in the Nixon administration believed that morality has no place in politics. It wasn't that they didn't know the difference between right and wrong - and they didn't care."

And back in the early '70s, Maraniss reminds us, Clinton said Nixon should resign if he lied to the American people. After Nixon resigned and Ford pardoned him, Clinton called the pardon "an unfortunate and totally unwarranted interruption of the due process of law." That's a good quote to remember. The "what's next" scenario for Clinton remains fuzzy. But at some point Clinton faces the possibility of being tried in court for perjury. He'll still have to deal with Kenneth Starr, who may be waiting for his first opportunity to seek an indictment. Hillary Clinton has said she fully expects Mr. Starr's pursuit of Clinton to continue after he leaves office. At a Monitor breakfast, Charles Bakaly, Starr's spokesman, said Mrs. Clinton's estimate could well have been on target. There is even a possibility Starr might seek to indict Clinton for perjury while he is still in office - he hasn't ruled that out. Starr's constitutional law adviser is Ronald Rotunda, a University of Illinois law professor who takes the position that the 1997 Supreme Court decision allowing the Paula Jones case to proceed strongly supports the idea of presidential indictability.

Furthermore, there's an untested theory that Clinton, if faced with such an indictment, could pardon himself. Clinton said of Nixon's pardon, at the time it was granted, that it "set an unfortunate precedent. It will weaken the people's faith in the fair operation of the legal system." So Clinton believes that the law should be fairly applied, to the rich and the poor and to the low and the high. Though the president's counsel, Charles Ruff, says Clinton has told him he wouldn't pardon himself we shall see how firmly he holds this conviction if Starr should seek to indict.

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