In the Wall Street Journal the other day, Monica Crowley, who used to work for Richard Nixon, wrote an appreciation of her old boss. She praised him for all the usual things but conceded that when it came to the little matter called Watergate, a "mistake" had been made. This preposterous misuse of the word -- not to mention a misreading of the historical record -- brings us to President Clinton and the speech he gave this week to the American Bar Association in Atlanta. Apparently the ABA believes that Clinton, too, made "mistakes."
I have long steered away from the pairing of Clinton and Nixon. Nixon clearly abused his office and committed crimes. His aides -- more than 15 of them -- went to jail, and Nixon himself might have followed had Gerald Ford not pardoned him. By contrast, no Clinton aide has been convicted of any White House -- as opposed to Arkansas -- crime. Sex with Monica just isn't in the same league with asking the CIA to cover up a crime.
But Nixon and Clinton do have something in common: The lack of a conviction for a crime is seen by some as an exoneration. Had Nixon been convicted of obstructing justice, had a jury of 12 good and worthy Washingtonians come back with a guilty verdict, it would now be impossible to argue that this man was the victim of a liberal putsch -- that he was hounded from office for doing, as Crowley argued, pretty much what other presidents before him had done: a piffle, politics as usual.
Similarly, the refusal of the Senate to convict Clinton after he had been impeached by the House and the apparent decision of Ken Starr not to indict him are taken by some -- including the president -- as an exoneration. Technically, that's the case. The fact remains, though, that Clinton lied to the grand jury and while being deposed in the Paula Jones case. As a result, a federal judge, Susan Webber Wright, ordered him last month to pay Jones's lawyers $90,000 for lying to them.
The money is insignificant. More important -- and of the utmost gravity -- is what the judge said: "The Court has determined that the president deliberately violated this Court's discovery Orders, thereby undermining the integrity of the judicial system." She found Clinton in "contempt" and said she was imposing sanctions on him "to deter others who might consider emulating the President's misconduct."
It happens that I am among a handful of columnists who never called for Clinton's resignation. I also thought he should never have been impeached. I have always considered Starr more of a menace to the country than Clinton, and I have utmost sympathy for anyone who is asked to account -- in what amounts to a public forum -- for his or her sex life.
But Clinton is not just a citizen. He is the president, the nation's chief judicial officer. He appoints the judges, the attorney general and, when the time comes, the FBI director. He is also a lawyer -- a former law professor and state attorney general. He, of all people, does not get to lie to a grand jury. He does not get to lie under oath.
Clinton had a choice. He could either violate his various oaths or he could tell the truth -- and face the consequences either way. He chose to lie. He chose to escalate an embarrassment into a criminal matter. He put himself above the law, above his sworn obligation to uphold the law. Never mind that you or I might have done the same. You and I are not the president.
The ABA, as an organization of lawyers, had a special obligation to remind us all of what Clinton did. It ought to have referred to the fifth of its 11 goals: "to achieve the highest standards of professionalism, competence and ethical conduct" and not invited Clinton to speak. Another group, another time -- but not lawyers, all of whom are solemnly sworn not to do what the president did.
Instead, by its actions, the ABA effectively embraced the White House argument that Clinton's lies, his contempt of court, amounted to a mere nothing -- that he did not, really and truly, break the law. Soon, as with Nixon, we will see the word "mistake" attached to the Clinton scandal -- and that, like the ABA's hospitality, will not be a mistake at all but an outrage.