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My criticism of Clinton

David S. Broder
Wednesday, December 30, 1998; 12:00 PM

Editor's Note: This piece originally appeared on Dec. 30, 1998.

The custom in this corner for many years has been to use the last column in December to clean up some of the errors of grammar, fact and judgment you readers have been kind enough to point out during the previous 12 months.

This year, your criticism has been voluminous and tightly focused. "Why are you so tough on President Clinton?" you ask. Many of your letters and faxes begin disarmingly enough. A Bullhead City, Ariz., man writes: "Although I have disagreed with you many times, up until now I have considered you a smart, knowledgeable and sensible man." And then comes the big "but" clause. As the woman from Belle Harbor, N.Y., puts it, "You have blown your reputation for moderation and fairness."

I take those views seriously, and with your permission, I would like to respond in fairly personal terms.

Some of you suggest my criticisms of Clinton reflect the ravages of old age. It is a fact that Clinton is the first president I've ever covered who is my junior in years. But I am high on the younger people in both politics and journalism, and I admire the way they have balanced their personal and professional lives far better than my own generation did.

"Is it something personal with you and Clinton?" several of you ask. No. I have no personal relationship with this president, good or bad. My notion of journalistic responsibility precludes personal friendships with the politicians I cover, and I have worked hard at keeping the proper distance with all of them.

I do have great admiration for Clinton, and it goes back almost 20 years, when I started covering him as governor of Arkansas. I wrote about him (and Vice President Gore) in a 1980 book on the emerging stars of their

generation, and caused him some embarrassment in Arkansas by telling an interviewer that fall that Clinton was my hunch to be the first baby boomer to win the White House.

I thought then and still think that he is the most talented political leader the Democrats have produced since Lyndon Johnson, possessed of extraordinary skills as a campaigner and a rare grasp of domestic policy. It has been easy to applaud his stands on a great many issues from his first budget to his current efforts for Social Security reform.

Does that make it harder to accept his flaws? Probably so. Disillusionment began for me during the 1992 campaign with his deceptive answers about his dealings with the draft. It made me recall Doris Kearns Goodwin's earlier warning that when we found a presidential candidate who reinvented his own history, pay heed, for such a character flaw would only be magnified by the power of the Oval Office.

The Monica Lewinsky story shocked me last January, not because it confirmed Clinton's reputation as a womanizer but because -- as former White House press secretary Mike McCurry said the other day -- "the recklessness of his behavior" was so stunning. In my first column on the subject, I said, "a journalist must suspend judgment until all the facts are known," and for weeks thereafter, I confined my comments to the "need to think about the really murky issue of when the private sexual behavior of presidents and presidential aspirants deserves to be a matter for public scrutiny." But I

also said, "The rule of law requires any American to give truthful testimony when sworn as a witness in a legal proceeding . . . {and} no one is above the law."

As Clinton continued to dodge and weave, the self-inflicted damage to the moral authority of the presidency grew. I was appalled in May when he declined to answer this press conference question: "Does it matter if you have committed perjury or . . . broken the law?" That was the same week in which Newt Gingrich forgot his duties as speaker and vowed in every speech to condemn Clinton for "the most systematic, deliberate obstruction of justice . . . we have ever seen in American history."

I thought both men were demeaning their high offices, and asked "how the hell the United States wound up with such a pair of leaders." I still wonder.

In November, Gingrich had the decency to step aside, rather than preside over the impeachment proceedings. But Clinton clings to office.

I have said -- to the intense irritation of many of you -- that resignation would be a true act of contrition by a president who admits he has "misled" his colleagues in government and the American people. It would be a voluntary act, prompted only by his conscience and his respect for his oath of office. And it would permit a man who shares Clinton's entire agenda, but is unimpaired by his character deficits, to assume the presidency -- as the voters twice have ordained.

I appreciate all your letters, even the most critical ones. But that is where I stand.

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