Another Perspective

My ”Friend” Bill Clinton

Says a former admirer and later Paula Jones defender: If he followed Jimmy Carter's example, his legacy would become less questionable.

5.9.03

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I received the strangest letter the other day from James Carville, Bill Clinton's old attack dog and political strategist. Here's what it said:

"Dear Friend, [t]hroughout the eight years of his presidency, you've been one of President Clinton's most loyal supporters. And I had the honor of helping to elect the man twice. So we have much to be proud of."

The letter goes on to ask me to affirm the following statement:

"I'm proud to have supported Bill Clinton during the eight years of his presidency and deeply appreciate what he accomplished for America and the world. Now, I would like to play a personal role in preserving his legacy and ensuring that it lives on."

Call it a hunch, but I think if Clinton were asked his opinion on this statement, he might suggest that I've done enough to contribute to his legacy -- especially considering the fact that it was my involvement in the Paula Jones case that led to his impeachment by the House of Representatives on December 19, 1998, and his subsequent trial in the Senate in 1999.

I first met Bill Clinton in the early '70s when I was a law student at the University of Arkansas and he was a law professor there. He was also on the verge of running for Congress. I worked part-time for a small newspaper and sought Clinton out for an interview (which became the first political interview he ever did). During the course of the interview, I got to know him and liked him. At that time, Clinton was idealistic, as I also was, and wanted to see some real change in the world. So it was with sadness that I watched the scandals gather around Clinton like a foreboding storm -- not knowing in the beginning that I would again be drawn face to face with him.

It's been six years since the Rutherford Institute agreed to assist Paula Jones in her sexual harassment and discrimination suit against Clinton. What followed was a precedent-setting case that received widespread coverage in the national and international media. Never before had a president's sexual misconduct come under such close scrutiny. Clinton's videotaped deposition during the discovery phase of the case constituted the first time that a sitting president was questioned as a defendant in a court case. And, of course, Clinton's false testimony about his extramarital relations with Monica Lewinsky during that deposition resulted in only the second presidential impeachment trial in American history.

When I first decided to help Paula Jones, critics on both the right and the left attacked me. Since taking on that case, I have been questioned, called a liar, accused of trying to "get" the president and painted as a political right-winger with an agenda no less ambitious than bringing down the president of the United States.

To the contrary, the Rutherford Institute's involvement in the Paula Jones case stemmed from the fundamental principle that no person-not even the president-is above the law. As I have said before, the Jones case was about principle, not politics. And it raised many important issues, such as the importance of protecting women from workplace harassment, the role of the rule of law in our highest offices and the need for leaders with strong moral character and discernment.

In the end, Bill Clinton agreed to settle the sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuit against him, Paula Jones went back to leading a relatively private life, and Monica Lewinsky signed on with Fox to host some sort of dating reality show called "Mr. Personality." As for me, I have continued my work as a human rights attorney, fighting to defend constitutional freedoms whenever they are endangered.

I rarely think about Clinton anymore. So I was especially surprised to receive the letter from Carville. Evidently, it was part of a fundraising campaign for Clinton's Presidential Library and my name being on the mailing list was some sort of fluke. But it left me wondering exactly what Clinton learned from the Jones case and his time in the White House.

When our children and grandchildren study about that time in history -- when the first sitting president was compelled to testify about possible wrongdoing and obstruction of justice -- we will not be able to hide the facts, nor should we, from these young minds. But it would be a tragedy if this were all they learned about the 42nd president of the United States of America.

As one of the youngest presidents to leave office (just two years younger than Jimmy Carter when he returned to his peanut farm), Clinton still has a chance to establish some sort of a legacy. But first he must recover his dignity enough so that he can be taken seriously again. For instance, it is customary for a president to seek out the advice of the former president during a time of crisis, such as war. But, to my knowledge, George W. Bush has not so much as invited Clinton to the White House for a briefing on the war with Iraq -- at a time when Bush is virtually holding hands, here and there, with former Clinton ally Tony Blair.

In his letter, Carville claims the man he "worked for in the White House is not about to retire. It's just not in his nature. He's going to do something significant that helps people." If Clinton is truly concerned about his legacy, as Carville claims, and these are not just empty words crafted for a slick fundraising campaign, then it's time to get down to brass tacks and stop spinning his wheels with semi-frivolous pursuits like talkshows or his latest venture, a 10-week series of point/counterpoint debates on current affairs with former presidential hopeful Bob Dole.

I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that Americans are sick and tired of talk, talk, talk. It's time for some action. With the world in such sad shape, "The possibilities," as writer Jeff Jacoby notes, "are limitless."

Clinton could speak out in defense of human rights, or campaign for better health care in the Third World. He could become a college professor and lecture on arms control, international politics, and environmental issues. He could travel to war zones and mediate cease-fires. He could support programs to make farming in stricken countries more productive. He could write books -- and they needn't all be political. He could write about aging, or try his hand at poetry, or even attempt a novel. He could monitor elections in fledgling democracies. He could teach Bible classes. He could work on his relationship with his wife. He could build furniture. Or make wine. Or take up skiing. Or climb Mount Fuji. Unrealistic? Not the sort of things ex-presidents do? Maybe not most ex-presidents. But Jimmy Carter has done them all.

If Clinton really intends his most important legacy to be, as Carville describes it, "something truly important that will help people and improve their lives," then there's no time to waste.

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