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Jewish World Review / June 4, 1998 / 10 Sivan, 5758

Roger Simon

Roger Simon You can call me ‘slick;' and you can call me ‘sick;' but never call me ‘Dick' .... as in Nixon, that is

WASHINGTON -- You can call Bill Clinton many things, and he won't lose his temper. You can call him a liar, a cheat and a womanizer, and he will just smile. You can call him Slick Willie, and he will just laugh.

But don't call him Richard Nixon.

Clinton came of political age during the Watergate scandal, and he considers Richard Nixon the embodiment of evil.

Which is why Clinton grew so angry and so embarrassed recently when people started comparing what he is doing in 1998 to what Nixon was doing in 1974.

Both presidents have invoked executive privilege in order to keep information from investigators.

In 1974, Richard Nixon invoked executive privilege to keep from turning over his secret White House tapes. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously against him, he was forced to give up the tapes, and he eventually resigned his office in disgrace.

For weeks now, Bill Clinton has invoked executive privilege to keep two close aides, Bruce Lindsey and Sidney Blumenthal, from testifying before Ken Starr's sex and cover-up grand jury.

But Monday, with the Nixon comparisons appearing daily in the media, Clinton gave up: In an attempt both to protect his public image and to avoid a constitutional showdown, he dropped his executive privilege claim.

Clinton intends to fight on, however, with his contention that lawyer-client privilege should protect Lindsey, one of his closest White House confidants, from testifying.

Both Lindsey, a deputy White House counsel, and Blumenthal, a communications aide, have testified before the grand jury in the past, but both have refused to answer some questions based on attorney-client privilege or executive privilege.

In an effort to resolve the matter quickly, Starr took the rare step of asking the Supreme Court to settle the dispute, thereby bypassing the Federal Court of Appeals.

"The sooner we can get issues resolved, the better," Starr told reporters outside his house early Monday. "We want to move forward as quickly as we can and gather as much information as we can."

The White House now says that because it is dropping the claim of executive privilege, the Supreme Court need not consider the matter, thereby avoiding what could be an embarrassing constitutional battle. The president's lawyers also said, however, that the appeals court, and not the Supreme Court, should take up the matter of lawyer-client privilege.

White House political operatives have long been nervous about Clinton's executive privilege claim, believing that it too closely echoed Nixon's claim.

The White House legal team has argued from the beginning of the Lewinsky controversy, however, that Clinton's public image is less important than protecting him from possible indictment or impeachment.

The legal team has won most of the battles within the White House, including strict instructions that Clinton should say nothing more publicly on the Lewinsky matter. But in meeting with his lawyers Monday morning, Clinton sided with his political advisers.

Both his political and legal teams feel that the public will be much more sympathetic to the claim of lawyer-client privilege.

"Most folks expect what they say to their lawyers is confidential," said counsel to the president Charles F.C. Ruff in a rare briefing of reporters Monday afternoon. "That's absolute."

White House aides also claimed Monday that while U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson last week rejected Clinton's attempt to keep Blumenthal and Lindsey from testifying based on executive privilege, she also ruled that executive privilege does exist for many discussions the president has with his aides, even those that deal with his personal misconduct.

"(T)he president does need to address personal matters in the context of official decisions," Johnson ruled.

The judge ultimately rejected Clinton's claims of executive privilege, however, after Starr made a private "substantial factual showing" to her that is being kept under seal which demonstrated a "specific need" for the testimony of Lindsey and Blumenthal and also demonstrated that he could not obtain such evidence elsewhere.

In so doing, Johnson upheld the principle of executive privilege, while saying it was limited and not absolute.

Monday, White House aides gamely claimed that as a victory.

"On executive privilege, we won on principle," Deputy White House press secretary Joe Lockhart said. "What would we appeal here? We are satisfied. We have protected the institution of the presidency."

When it comes to lawyer-client privilege, however, the White House intends to fight on. Even though Lindsey, who has been at Clinton's right hand since his Arkansas days, has the title of deputy White House counsel, he does a multitude of undescribed and unpublicized jobs for the president.

"Our basic core position," Ruff said, "is these conversations (with Lindsey), as long as they deal with the official business of the presidency, are protected."

But I asked Ruff why discussions about Monica Lewinsky would be "the official business of the presidency."

After all, talk about sex and gifts and jobs doesn't seem to have much to do with Clinton's oath of office.

But Ruff wouldn't answer me, saying instead: "I think our position on that issue is laid out exquisitely in our pleadings, and I will leave it there."

So I took a look at his pleadings. And in his memorandum to the district court filed March 17, Ruff claims that conversations about Lewinsky are official for three reasons:

1. Because the Constitution requires the president to make a State of the Union speech each year and the Lewinsky matter might have come up in that speech, those conversations are official business.

2. Because the Lewinsky matter might have affected Clinton's role as a "peacemaker" with foreign governments, those conversations are official business.

3. Because the Lewinsky matter could lead to Clinton's impeachment, Ruff argued, those conversations are official business.

Impeachment? The president's own lawyer is uttering the dreaded I-word?

Next thing you know, Ruff is going to have Clinton go on TV and say, "I am not a crook."

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2/10/98: Clinton tunes out the networks
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2/3/98: Speaking Clintonese
1/29/98: What the president has going for him
1/27/98: Judgment call: how Americans view President Clinton
1/22/98: Bimbo eruptions past and present
1/20/98: Feeding the beast: Paula Jones gets the full O.J.
1/15/98: Let's get it over with: it's time to deal with Saddam, already
1/13/98: Sonny Bono is dead, let the good times roll
1/8/98: Carribbean Cheesecake: First couple has cake, eats cake
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1/1/98: Cures for that holiday hangover
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12/16/97: All dressed up... (White House flack Mike McCurry speculates on his next career)

©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.