WASHINGTON -- President Clinton intensified his campaign to recast his impeachment in a favorable light yesterday, portraying his Senate acquittal as a salvation of the Constitution and saying he did not want, and would not ask for, a pardon from his successor.
In what may have been his longest public outburst against his legal and political antagonists, Clinton told a national gathering of newspaper editors that he was not ashamed of his impeachment.
"I am proud of what we did there," he insisted at the annual gathering of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, "because I think we saved the Constitution of the United States."
The president's assertions came a day after Vice President Al Gore told the same gathering that Clinton had "said publicly some time ago that he would neither request nor accept a pardon."
In fact, Clinton has never said publicly that he would reject an offer of a pardon. Charles F. C. Ruff, then White House counsel, did address the issue in impeachment hearings before the House Judiciary Committee in December 1998. Asked whether he could assure the committee that Clinton would neither pardon himself nor accept a pardon from his successor, Ruff replied, "Absolutely."
White House officials said this week that Ruff's statement stands, although the president never explicitly said he would turn down an offer of pardon.
Asked yesterday whether he would request or accept such an offer, the president replied: "The answer is no. I don't have any interest in that. I don't want one, and I am prepared to stand before any bar of justice I have to stand before."
The pardon issue flared anew this week after Robert W. Ray -- Kenneth W. Starr's successor as the independent counsel -- publicly stated that he considers the inquiry into the president's efforts to conceal his relationship with Monica Lewinsky an "open investigation." Ray made clear that he is considering seeking an indictment of Clinton, after the president leaves office, on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.
"There is a principle to be vindicated, and that principle is that no person is above the law, even the president of the United States," Ray told the Washington Post.
Though Clinton has railed against his pursuers in one-on-one interviews and small gatherings, yesterday's remarks might have been his most public display of defiance and anger.
The president has begun opening up in recent days about his impeachment. He told congregants at a Pentecostal church in Louisiana on Saturday that "there for a period of time -- a day or two at least -- was some question about whether I would finish my term."
Yesterday, attacking the independent counsel's original investigation of the Whitewater land deal, Clinton told the newspaper editors: "I would like just once to see someone acknowledge the fact that this Whitewater thing was a lie and a fraud from the beginning, and that most people with any responsibility over it have known it for years."
'Slightly different take'
Asked how his planned presidential library would deal with his impeachment, Clinton said he would adopt "a slightly different take."
Instead of focusing on the substance of the perjury and obstruction charges, Clinton intimated, the library will likely portray his impeachment as a showdown over Congress' constitutional power to remove a president and how the Senate's acquittal of him helped reaffirm the protections of the Constitution.
"I'm not ashamed of the fact that they impeached me," he said of the House majority. "That was their decision, not mine, and it was wrong. As a matter of law, Constitution and history, it was wrong. And I'm glad I didn't quit, and I'm glad we fought it."
Clinton portrayed his impeachment as part of a protracted battle with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress. It began with his fight against the House Republicans' "Contract with America," extended to the government shutdowns of 1995 and 1996, careered through the impeachment and flared again last year with his veto of the Republicans' $800 billion tax cut.
"I consider [impeachment] one of the major chapters in my defeat of the revolution Mr. Gingrich led," Clinton said.
Clinton hinted yesterday that he would continue his efforts to vindicate his presidency -- even if that meant turning down a pardon and facing trial.
A right to reject pardon
Most scholars believe that a citizen has the right to reject an unconditional presidential pardon. A Supreme Court ruling in 1915 explained that "a pardon carries an imputation of guilt, acceptance a confession of it."
Because Clinton said he was "prepared to stand before any bar of justice," it would appear that he is willing to reject a pardon, said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart.
President Gerald R. Ford sent emissaries to a disgraced Richard M. Nixon to make sure that he would accept a pardon before Ford offered it. Nixon indicated he would, and Ford pardoned him for any Watergate crimes.
Clinton's portrayal of his impeachment battle as a heroic action drew rebukes from some of his critics.
In defending the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment vote, Sam Stratman, a spokesman for committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde, noted U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright's citation of Clinton for civil contempt of court for lying under oath.
"In her decision to cite the president for contempt of court and to fine him $90,000," Stratman said, "Judge Wright said the president's actions 'undermined the integrity of the judicial system.' I don't think there's very much in these events for the president to be proud of."
William W. Van Alstyne, a constitutional law professor at Duke University, marveled at "the president's infinite capacity to convert his tawdry peccadilloes and dissembling into a defense of the United States Constitution."
"It's a tribute to the president's chutzpah and great skill in being able to put a redemptive spin on a really tawdry affair," Van Alstyne said.