HAVING WON the battle to remain in office, President Clinton has begun trying to rehabilitate his reputation. While contemporary commentators may regard his conduct in the Monica Lewinsky episode as deplorable, the president recently told ABC News that "I think history will view this much differently." Historians, he said, will understand that there really was a right-wing effort to get him: "I made a personal mistake, and they spent $50 million trying to ferret it out and root it out, because they had nothing else to do, because all the other charges were totally false -- bogus, made up, and people were persecuted because they wouldn't commit perjury against me." In short, the president claimed, history "will say I made a bad personal mistake, I paid a serious price for it, but that I was right to stand and fight for my country and my Constitution and its principles, and that the American people were very good to stand with me."
President Clinton can perhaps be forgiven for wanting to shift the premises of the discussion of his impeachment. But no matter how mightily he strives, he cannot turn his fight for personal survival into a battle on behalf of the Constitution.
Following a habit that dates from his initial quasi-apologies for his conduct, the president describes his transgression as a "personal mistake" -- a phrase that seems to refer only to his sexual exploits rather than to his false testimony about them and his willingness to see others testify falsely to cover them up. His phrasing misses the point. Historians will surely recall that it was not any personal mistake but the question of whether the president had committed perjury and corrupted evidence in a federal proceeding that was the issue in his impeachment. They may also recall that it was not just independent counsel Kenneth Starr or the Republican House of Representatives but Judge Susan Webber Wright -- the same judge who threw out the Paula Jones lawsuit -- who described the president's testimony under oath unequivocally as "false, misleading and evasive answers that were designed to obstruct the judicial process."
Historians will have to cope with the troubling question of whether an effort to corrupt evidence of an affair in a civil lawsuit warrants impeachment. But the White House's effort to protect Mr. Clinton will surely not be remembered for any nobility or higher purpose. The president dragged the country through months of trauma to fight allegations that were, at least in the main, true. His operatives smeared political and legal opponents. To this day, he has never acknowledged the harm he did. As to his behavior, there was nothing "right" about it.