Forget Clinton: It's time to move on

By W. James Antle III
web posted February 19, 2001

Specter: Under Scottish law, there are three possible verdicts: Guilty, not guilty and not proved, and I intend to vote not proved as to both articles. That is not to say that the president is not guilty, but to specifically say that the charges, in my judgment, have not been proved.
Specter: Under Scottish law, there are three possible verdicts: Guilty, not guilty and not proved, and I intend to vote not proved as to both articles. That is not to say that the president is not guilty, but to specifically say that the charges, in my judgment, have not been proved. - February 10, 1999

You have to hand it to Arlen Specter. In 1999, when Bill Clinton had been impeached by the House of Representatives for his perjury and obstruction of justice, a Senate trial afforded those who found such conduct unbecoming of the nation's chief law enforcement officer an opportunity to remove him from office. Sen. Specter instead made a bizarre reference to Scottish jurisprudence in voting "not proven" to avoid said removal and in doing so deprived impeachment proponents even a symbolic Senate majority in favor of conviction.

Now that Clinton is out of office, Specter is publicly talking about the possibility of impeaching Clinton retroactively for his pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich and his business partner Pincus Green. The reasoning is that abusing the presidential pardoning power in order to accept a bribe would be an impeachable offense which, if proven, would still require punishment. Since Clinton still draws a presidential pension and benefits from Secret Service protection, a retroactive impeachment makes sense to Pennsylvania's senior senator.

This type of shrewd political instinct led Specter to conclude that at the height of Newt Gingrich's political power, with Rush Limbaugh ruling talk radio, the activist conservative 104th Congress' freshman class dominating political debate and Pat Buchanan at the peak of his electoral appeal, what Republicans really wanted was a boring pro-choice, pro-gun control fiscal moderate as their presidential nominee. Perhaps we should exhume the remains of Richard Nixon and initiate impeachment proceedings against him as well. To say nothing of the posthumously discovered abuses of power by Lyndon Johnson, FDR all the way down through history. Line them up and begin the House Judiciary Committee hearings!

I for one think that it is now painfully obviously that the American people made a colossal mistake in 1964 when they went overwhelmingly for LBJ over Barry Goldwater. If we can impeach people who are no longer president, there is no reason that we should not be able to have rematches between candidates who are no longer alive.

The opportunity to mete out the appropriate political punishment for a man who conducted himself in the presidency as Clinton did has passed, with Specter having been among the majority that chose to do nothing about it. Contriving phony impeachment schemes and other ways to torment Clinton for the remainder of his days is no substitute for dealing with dereliction of presidential duty through the constitutional mechanism the Founders devised.

Conservatives are paying too much attention to Bill Clinton. His presidency is over and his time has passed. It accomplishes no discernible good to continue holding congressional hearings designed to publicize his manifold misdeeds, razing entire rainforests to publish lengthy treatises denouncing him and otherwise misdirecting our zeal in pursuit of Clinton rather than our real goals. Many opportunities are at hand as we have both a Republican president and Congress. If the conduct of our public officials concerns you, there remains much to criticize even under the current regime. Let's focus on the present.

Make no mistake: As time passes, we are going to learn of even more Clinton misdeeds. His pardons, not confined to the Rich pardon, were replete with the type of sleazy quid pro quos that so characterized his presidency. Under Clinton, the trappings of the office and the powers of the presidency were often for sale to the highest bidder. The future is likely to bring more horror stories on the impact campaign contributions had on our national interest. Americans will come to learn that Clinton was actually impeached for what may be considered the least of his crimes.

Yesterday's news
Yesterday's news

As the power of the presidency slips away from Clinton, his former defenders and ideological comrades will be emboldened to speak the truth about their former leader's character. They will gradually abandon him and join in the condemnation. The beginning phases of this are already evident in the reaction of some prominent liberals to the Rich pardon. This is no reason for Republicans and conservatives to preoccupy themselves with Clinton anymore. We must move forward and leave Clinton and his more duplicitous partisans, many of whom were motivated by temporary advantage to their favorite political causes rather than loyalty, to the judgment of history.

This does not mean that conservatives should no longer remain engaged in the debate over Clinton's legacy, which will focus both on his behavior (and our reaction to it while he was in office) and the results of his policies. Nor does it mean that ex-presidents should be above the law. While National Review editor Rich Lowry is correct to hope that the United States never resembles Third World countries in the propensity to jail former presidents, it is even more important to maintain the rule of law rather than degenerate into capricious government by men. This mandates equal justice regardless of whether a transgressor served in high office.

However, the debate over the past eight years under Clinton should not crowd out current debates or take precedence over our republic's future. There is much work ahead of us in terms of limiting government, unshackling the free market, defending our constitutional heritage, preserving our national cohesion, respecting individual liberty and strengthening the family. This work needs to be done no matter what happens to Clinton. As far as the legal implications of the pardon, US attorney Mary Jo Smith, a Democrat appointed by Clinton in 1993, has opened a probe into the matter. This is an issue not covered by the former president's deal with Independent Counsel Robert Ray and appropriately dealt with by prosecutors, not Republican congressional leaders. Congressional hearings would be more productive advancing President Bush's tax-cut proposal.

Ultimately, the more we time we concentrate on continuing the attack against Clinton, the less time we have to devote to important issues. It is the Democrats' problem if they are willing to let Clinton distract the American people from their party's future leaders. Republicans are absolutely foolish to follow suit and have Clinton shunt President Bush aside on the front page each day.

Corrupt and objectionable as the former president is, many who have profited from the anti-Clinton cottage industry have not truly been motivated by the country's best interests. Conservatives should no longer waste time or money on these people either. Their books, videos and pamphlets detract from the legitimate case against Clinton and the ideas for which we fight.

Republicans at the congressional level are limited in what they can do to punish Clinton at this point. Taking his pension and Secret Service protection away is petty vindictiveness that accomplishes nothing. It is frustrating to have seen so unworthy a man prevail so many times. But that is water under the bridge at this point. We should move on, lest we become sorer losers than Al Gore's henchmen.

When historians and commentators evaluate Bill Clinton's presidency in coming years, they will often say how tragic it is that he wasted such immense gifts and talents. How much more tragic it would be for conservatives to waste a great movement by transforming it into the revenge of the nerds.

W. James Antle III is a former researcher for the Rhema Group, an Ohio-based political consulting firm. You can e-mail comments to

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