No person is above the law

By John Nowacki
web posted April 17, 2000

Independent Counsel Robert Ray's recent statement that he is actively considering seeking an indictment against President Clinton -- after Clinton leaves office -- is welcome news. In an interview on April 10, Ray said that there is a principle to be vindicated, that "no person is above the law, even the President of the United States."

That's absolutely right. And it's certainly appropriate for Ray to be weighing this decision in a serious manner, rather than dismissing it outright after the cursory proceedings in the Senate last year.

While the news was not much of a surprise, given Ray's recent hiring of six new lawyers and other staff, the reaction to it has been very interesting. And very predictable.

This is all unnecessary, we're told. The President has already been held accountable. We need to put the matter behind us. After all, everybody's sick of it.

Sound familiar? Of course. It's the same line we heard when the Senate's trial, or whatever you want to call it, was going on.

Remember when back during the impeachment proceedings, when we were constantly reminded that Clinton could be prosecuted criminally after he leaves office? And how that would ensure that Clinton would be held accountable? We shouldn't remove Clinton from office, some said, because a criminal prosecution for lying under oath, for obstruction of justice, and so on was a very real thing.

In an editorial on April 13, the Washington Post declared that while there are "plausible" arguments for indicting Clinton, none of them outweighs the arguments against taking that step. Why? Because Clinton "has hardly gone unpunished for his offenses."

Really? Sure, he was impeached by the House. But then he held that pep rally at the White House, where Al Gore proclaimed him one of the greatest Presidents of all time. I remember watching it all on television. There didn't seem to be any shame there. After all, his impeachment was just some partisan vendetta by those ill-tempered nuts in the House.

But Clinton was subjected to public humiliation, terrible humiliation. To most people, perhaps, what Clinton went through would be humiliating. However, Clinton had his staunch defenders in the press, in the Congress, and on the various news commentary shows. He was hardly in the stocks.

And if he was embarrassed, this President who once announced his preferred type of underwear to the world, what of it? Should that really excuse his actions? Does it make everything okay?

The Post cites the Judge Susan Webber Wright's opinion, finding Clinton in contempt of court, as one of those things that punished him. Ah, yes. That would be the opinion that was shrugged off with indifference, right?

Well, Clinton could lose his license to practice law. But that wouldn't be a punishment, that would be because he acted unethically and disgraced the profession. When asked about the complaint before the Arkansas Supreme Court's Committee on Professional Conduct, Clinton said, "I don't think I should be spending my time on this. I think I'm working for the American people, and I'm going to do my best to adhere to that." I think the really telling statement came from Joe Lockhart, Clinton's spokesman. When asked on April 12 about Ray's theory of Presidential accountability, Lockhart replied, "I think if there's anybody in this country who doesn't think the President has been held accountable, that would be a surprise to me."

The audacity of that statement is typical of this "most ethical" of administrations.

I don't doubt that we'll be hearing more of that as next January draws closer. But in the meantime, it remains encouraging to hear that Mr. Ray is not merely shutting the windows and locking the doors after Ken Starr's departure; he is taking seriously his responsibility to hold the people within his purview accountable as well.

John Nowacki is deputy director of the Free Congress Foundation's Center for Law and Democracy.

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