Clinton and the playing of word games


WASHINGTON -- Amid all the speculation about what Bill Clinton will do when he leaves the presidency, here's a fresh suggestion: Why not make him the next host of that most popular of television word games, "Wheel of Fortune"?

Nobody has a more winning personality on the tube, and playing word games is one of his specialties. He's at it again in his defense against the recommendation of an ethics committee of the Arkansas Supreme Court that he be disbarred from practicing law in his home state for "serious misconduct" in his testimony in the Paula Jones case.

As in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Mr. Clinton through his lawyers apparently will argue again that in stating that "I have never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky" he was technically accurate because she performed a sex act on him but he didn't reciprocate.

In the Jones case, however, U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright didn't buy the contention that it takes two to tango in this intimate regard. She held Mr. Clinton in contempt for making what she called an "intentionally false" statement and slapped him with a $90,000 fine.

It is interesting to note that rather than appeal, he paid the fine to make the story go away. In this instance, he doesn't have that recourse and so is falling back on the old word games -- as in, it depends on what the meaning of "is" is -- that didn't enable him to dodge the impeachment bullet. Senate Democrats, privately acknowledging how ludicrous the defense was, nevertheless saved Mr. Clinton's skin by holding their noses and providing enough votes for his acquittal.

All through the impeachment trial, Mr. Clinton's defenders argued that removal from office was too extreme a punishment and one that a clear majority of the American public didn't want. There would be time enough after he left the White House to take action against him, they contended successfully. Well, he's not quite out yet, but the contemplated action won't interfere with his conduct of office, so why not now?

Mr. Clinton throughout the impeachment saga charged that the whole business was politically motivated, fingering independent counsel Kenneth Starr, as a right-wing zealot out to get him. This time around, it's a conservative group, the Southeastern Legal Foundation, that's being similarly fingered for pressing for disbarment. But it should be noted that Judge Wright herself has joined in the action.

We have already been told by this president that in fighting his impeachment he was really defending the Constitution, by letting the constitutional process of House prosecution and Senate trial play out. By this reasoning, Richard Nixon was subverting the Constitution by resigning after articles of impeachment were recommended by the House Judiciary Committee but before the prosecution started.

Nixon was disbarred in New York, but not until he was out of office. So Mr. Clinton would be the first lawyer-president to have it happen to him. It's unlikely, in any event, that he would go back to practicing law as a private citizen, for all his stated reverence of the law.

Now, no doubt in the same spirit of veneration for the wheels of justice that led him to fight impeachment, Mr. Clinton says "we're going to give the judge a chance to do what we believe is right."

The panel's recommendation will go before a county circuit court judge and can be appealed to the state supreme court if he fails, in Mr. Clinton's view, to do what "is right." The president says, however, that he will not personally testify and will leave the matter to his lawyers.

Can you blame him? Raising his right hand and swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth was what got him in legal hot water in the first place. Better that he leaves the task of saving what's left of his good name to those lawyers. They've already proved in getting him off the hook in the Senate that they are just as good at word games as he is.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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