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Jewish World Review April 23, 2000 /18 Nissan, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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What a piece of work: The latest from Clinton -- WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON, upholder of the law.

Can you say that with a straight face?

Bill Clinton can.

Talking of the urgent necessity to bar the gates to a 6-year-old, the president let loose with this statement of high principle:

"The rule of law's got to be upheld. If we don't do it here, where do we stop?'' Yes -- where do we stop? Fail to deport this littlest refugee in Miami, and soon we'll all be giving false testimony under oath, obstructing the judicial process, showing contempt for the courts. ... Where will it all end?

You never know just how to react when Bill Clinton starts talking about the sanctity of law. You don't know whether to be halfway charmed (what a scamp!) or appalled (what a clod!). Over the years, I've settled for both reactions, at first alternately, but by now simultaneously.

Somehow this president manages to combine a complete self-absorption with a complete unawareness of what he has done. Or else he wouldn't, he couldn't say the things he does. ("The rule of law's got to be upheld. If we don't do it here, where do we stop?'')

That's one for your permanent collection of Clintonisms. Only someone able to completely separate the speech from the speaker, sentiment from behavior, principle from practice, could so smoothly, even indignantly, perpetrate a performance like that. It's not so much hypocrisy as unconsciousness. Maybe, after a time, spin becomes not art, but second nature.

When the time comes to choose those solemn quotations that will adorn the engraved walls of his presidential library here in Little Rock, that little aside about upholding the rule of law ought to go over the entrance to a Hall of Impeachment. You know, the way "I am not a crook'' should have been engraved over the entrance to the Nixon Library.

No wonder Bill Clinton drives his critics batty. The other day, he was claiming to have saved the Constitution -- yes, saved the Constitution! -- by beating the rap when he was impeached. It was enough to exasperate even laid-back Jack Germond, a long-time observer of presidential follies and a conventional, old-style liberal. You could picture Brother Germond just banging away at his laptop as he wrote his column, scarcely pausing for breath, (CQ) gasting a flabber with every paragraph:

"Clinton is now joining not only Nixon but also former Vice President Spiro Agnew, who also looked down the gun-barrel of impeachment on bribery and corruption allegations before resigning, in seeking to persuade the American people that he was railroaded, though in Clinton's case, not out of office. ... There can be little doubt that Clinton will attempt to convey the same message in his Little Rock presidential library's treatment of his impeachment -- along, perhaps, with an exhibit of other great Americans who also saved the Constitution for us.''

Jack Germond went on like that for a whole, hyperventilating column. He might as well have transmitted the entire thing in capital letters, the way AP copy used to come clattering off the teletype. Gosh, why not just send out a page or two of exclamation marks and asterisks? Pounding the keys might be good therapy.

By now I recognize his symptoms: raging clintonphobia aggravated by an inability to believe what the guy will say next, or his apologists repeat. I first came down with it in the early '90s, or maybe early '80s. The only known cure is a sense of humor.

What a show. The ironies just keep coming. Here's the latest:

One of the arguments made against this president's conviction in the Senate, remember, was that his misconduct did not rise (or maybe fall) to the level of impeachment. Any crimes he committed, it was explained, could safely be left to the courts once he was out of office. One after another, various Democratic senators argued that this was a matter for the criminal justice system, not Congress:

"Whether any of his conduct constitutes a criminal offense, such as perjury or obstruction of justice, is not for me to decide. That, appropriately, should and must be left to the criminal justice system, which will uphold the rule of law in President Clinton's case, as it would for any other American.'' -- Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, that eloquent voice (but not vote) for conscience.

"Rejecting these articles of impeachment does not place this president above the law. As the Constitution clearly says, he remains subject to the laws of the land just like any other citizen of the United States.'' -- Senator Barbara Boxer of California, another great defender of principle when expedient.

Dale Bumpers, Arkansas' contribution to the defense team, made much the same argument, among innumerable and eloquent others. So what happens when the Office of Independent Counsel begins to assemble a staff of prosecutors to pursue various charges against said William Jefferson Clinton once he is no longer sheltered by the presidential seal?

Various Democratic senators, one after another, begin to express their shock and dismay. The usual Clinton apologists (that may be a standard job category by now) can't believe that anyone would still want to try their man in a court of law. What a nutty notion, they now say, of the same theory many of them were propounding during impeachment.

This latest, compact little jewel of a Clintonism -- "The rule of law's got to be upheld. If we don't do it here, where do we stop?'' -- is ironic on so many levels, indignation soon fades to fascination. For one thing, it glides over the little matter of just who has been unwilling to wait for the rule of law to play out in this country before demanding that a child be surrendered now, immediately, by 2 p.m. last Thursday.

By order of Janet Reno, attorney general of the United States, the boy was to be dropped off at the nearest airport for immediate shipment to the Cuban ambassador's residence in Washington -- like a package. There his father, surrounded by the usual security types, awaits delivery. It's a wonder General Reno didn't demand that the child be sent Fed Ex.

Could we please wait for the appellate courts to decide this matter before shipping the boy off? No, says William Jefferson Clinton. "The rule of law's got to be upheld.'' The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals may not have ruled in this matter, except to issue a stay against little Elian's deportation. Nor has the Supreme Court, but Bill Clinton already has -- and in the name of the rule of law! Yes, what a piece of work.

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©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate