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Jewish World Review Jan. 14, 2002 /Rosh Chodesh Shevat, 5762

Nat Hentoff

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Bill Clinton confronts posterity -- EVER mindful of his place in history, Bill Clinton assembled his Praetorian Guard in his Harlem office on Dec. 19 -- as The New York Times reported in a front-page story -- "to devise ways to remind the public of his accomplishments and defend his legacy."

His faithful former retainers have "agreed to compile a list of the Clinton administration's achievements that his supporters could have handy when defending the president. They hope to build a staff that will coordinate efforts to enlist former cabinet secretaries and other Clinton surrogates to appear on television talk shows and deliver speeches."

It is a daunting challenge, even though these hagiographers have had much experience in creative revisionism. They may be counting on the fact that so much has happened since the impeachment proceedings that they can slide by Clinton's artful sidestepping of the charges of obstruction of justice and tampering with witnesses.

On one of these television testimonials to the former president, some churl may bring up the fact that Arkansas Federal District Judge Susan Webber Wright ruled Clinton in contempt of court for undermining "the integrity of the judicial process" with "false answers" in his deposition in the Paula Jones case. But what did that have to do with the economic prosperity he brought us?

Despite his serial lies, it was William Jefferson Clinton, it should be remembered, who declared at the end of his first term, "One of my highest goals as president of the United States has been to protect the Constitution." Moreover, after the Senate declined to convict him of the articles of impeachment, although the evidence was clear, Clinton told the American Society of Newspapers editors: "On impeachment, I'm proud of what we did. I think we saved the Constitution of the United States."

Of course, with his wonderful sense of humor -- an asset his defense team should highlight -- Clinton also said to a dinner of radio and television correspondents: "Don't you newspeople ever learn? It isn't the mistake that kills you. It's the cover-up." His audience laughed on cue.

As for his devotion to the Constitution, the public should be reminded that it wasn't Attorney General John Ashcroft who instituted roving wiretaps in the current war against terrorism. In October 1998, Clinton signed a bill authorizing that surgery on the Fourth Amendment. And before President George W. Bush dispensed with habeas corpus in his original order setting up military tribunals, Clinton had already greatly weakened that fundamental right of judicial review in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.

That Clinton law also preceded the Bush-Ashcroft discounting of the Bill of Rights by allowing suspected terrorists to be deported without they or their lawyers being informed of the evidence against them. So much for the charge that Clinton was soft on terrorism. It was the Constitution he was soft on.

In its mission to bring The Comeback Kid closer to Mount Rushmore, his inventive band of acolytes ought to point out how he avoided excessive entanglements abroad. Like subsequent Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kofi Annan -- then in charge of the United Nations peacekeeping office -- Clinton was forewarned in 1994 of the imminent genocide in Rwanda in which 800,000 Tutsis were to be slaughtered in one month.

But Congressional elections were coming up, and the White House ordered that the word "genocide" was not be used because the president had decided not to intervene. Indeed, he delayed action by the United Nations, even though it would have taken only 5000 troops to stop the killing. A subsequent investigation by the United Nations admitted that the unfortunate situation could have been better handled if Kofi Annan had done his job. Clinton as well.

However, Bill Clinton, with an aplomb that few other presidents could have equaled, actually said four years later in Kigali, Rwanda's capital: "All over the world there were people like me sitting in offices, day after day, who did not appreciate the depth and speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror." Not even Henry Kissinger could have matched that.

It takes a person of extraordinary resilience and capacity for self-renewal to have made that speech in that place. These are qualities that should inspire the truth squad he has summoned. Also, I remember an ennobling moment on television when Denise Rich presented this jazz-knowledgeable president with a gleaming saxophone. The theme for the urgent current renaissance of William Jefferson Clinton could be that vintage New Orleans jazz anthem, "Oh, Didn't He Ramble." It was played at funerals, but the brass band swung exultantly on the way back to town.

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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