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Clinton polishes his legacy

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - Former President Bill Clinton's memoir, now flying off the shelves in bookstores around the country, is an obvious effort to put his eight years in the Oval Office in the best possible light. It does that, but without the credibility that a more temperate account about his dark days might have achieved.

It was no secret even before Mr. Clinton put pen to paper in My Life that he was furious at the prospect that his considerable accomplishments in office would be blurred in history by the sex scandal that culminated in his impeachment and ultimate acquittal.

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So it was no surprise that he would use his memoir as a vehicle for denouncing the House Republicans who impeached him, particularly prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr. Mr. Starr was his nemesis in the Whitewater real estate investigation, in which the Clintons were exonerated, and in the White House intern fiasco.

In the book, while Mr. Clinton acknowledges his sleazy personal conduct with Monica Lewinsky and his semantic gyrations to avoid perjury charges in talking about it, he repeatedly casts the whole issue as a raw power struggle.

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He quotes House Speaker Newt Gingrich as telling Erskine Bowles, the White House chief of staff, that the House Republicans were proceeding with impeachment charges instead of some lesser charge such as censure or reprimand "because we can."

Mr. Clinton writes: "This was about power, about something the House Republican leaders did because they could, and because they wanted to pursue an agenda I opposed and had blocked. I have no doubt that many of their supporters out in the country believed that the drive to remove me from office was rooted in morality or law, and that I was such a bad person it didn't matter whether or not my conduct fit the constitutional definition of impeachability."

Mr. Clinton concedes that "in the partisan wars that had raged since the mid-1960s, neither side had been completely blameless ... but when it came to the politics of personal destruction, the New Right Republicans were in a class by themselves. My party sometimes didn't seem to understand power, but I was proud of the fact that there were some things Democrats wouldn't do just because they could."

The former president thus repeated his accusations at the time of his impeachment - that he was done in by the House Republicans, rather than by his own conduct and perjurious statements.

He unsurprisingly makes no mention of the repugnance expressed by Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle over his behavior, or that fellow Democrats in the Senate held their noses and scuttled this GOP "power" move in a vote that blocked the two-thirds majority required for conviction.

Mr. Clinton again casts his fight against impeachment as a defense of the Constitution. After the House vote, he writes, "the Democrats had stood up not just for me but, far more importantly, for the Constitution" against "a politically motivated action by a majority party in Congress that couldn't restrain itself."

But, he writes, he won in the end because "I had survived and continued to serve and fight for what I believed. First, last and always, my struggle with the New Right Republicans was about power. I thought power came from the people and they should give it and take it away. They thought the people had made a mistake in electing me twice, and they were determined to use my personal mistakes to justify their continuing assault."

In a 60 Minutes interview two days before the book's release, Mr. Clinton said he regarded his fight against impeachment as "a badge of honor" in defense of the Constitution, suggesting that what he did never rose to the level of the "high crimes and misdemeanors" specified in Article II, Section 4.

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Mr. Clinton's sour recounting of that sad chapter in an otherwise commendable political career was to be expected. Whether it will change history's view of him for the better or worse is unlikely, any more than have the memoirs of his White House predecessors.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.


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