That Clinton Touch

Chatterbox is tempted to agree with Clinton’s lawyers about one thing: It is ridiculous, mostly, for the Starr report to argue that Clinton’s attempts to claim executive privilege constitute an impeachable abuse of power. Starr really is “criminalizing” a constitutional dispute in this instance. Isn’t he?

What keeps Chatterbox from endorsing this position unequivocally is one puzzling response Clinton made in his grand jury testimony, as quoted in the report. The subject was secretary Betty Currie’s testimony that Clinton had said to her, on the day after his Paula Jones deposition, “Monica [Lewinsky] came on to me, and I never touched her, right?” When asked about this by the grand jury, Clinton refused to answer, and instead referred to a statement he’d given at the beginning of the appearance: “[B]ecause of privacy considerations affecting my family, myself, and others, and in an effort to preserve the dignity of the office I hold, this is all I will say about the specifics of these particular matters.”

The trouble with this response is that Clinton had already retreated to his zany “getting a blow job isn’t having sex” defense, and therefore had yielded on this specific dignity point–i.e., admitting the physical relationship. One can understand Clinton’s refusal to answer smutty questions about particular sex acts on the grounds that it would erode presidential dignity even further. (If Monica Lewinsky is to believed, Clinton was particularly avid about groping and sucking her breasts.) But this was no such instance. In fact, the only practical difference between acknowledging the physical relationship, which he’d done, and acknowledging that he told Betty Currie there was no physical relationship, is that the latter speaks to whether Clinton tried to suborn perjury or otherwise obstruct justice. By using the “dignity of office” argument in this dubious context, maybe Clinton really was abusing presidential power….

Timothy Noah