There is an unbridgeable conflict, we hear, between President Clinton's legal defense (I broke no laws and committed no perjury) and his political defense (I've sinned, forgive me, and let's move on). It goes like this:
On the one hand, Clinton cannot admit to perjury because the independent counsel is still out there and loose. Ken Starr could, if Congress does not impeach, try to indict a sitting president. Or, more likely, he could wait two years until Clinton is out of office and indict him then.On the other hand, the insane legalisms that his lawyers have offered to keep him out of jail have undermined him politically. They have made even Democrats mad. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt weighed in together Monday to tell the president to cut out the nonsense and come clean.
Despite the fact that this problem is being touted around Washington as the greatest logical conundrum since Zeno's paradox, there is a simple solution staring us in the face.
But before jumping to the solution, let's establish the premise: Clinton did indeed commit crimes. Let's pick two out of many.
1. Perjury. Clinton's defense - that Monica Lewinsky had sex with him but he didn't have sex with her - has rightly earned derision. But for the sake of argument, assume that Clinton is right that, under the definition offered by the Jones court, he did not have sex with her.
Fine. But there is no semantic escape from this: When presented with Lewinsky's deposition stating that she didn't have sex with him and asked if it was true, Clinton responded "absolutely true." (Like O.J. and his classic "absolutely 100 percent not guilty," Clinton prefers to lie with gusto.)
But Clinton claims that she was the toucher and he the touchee. Hence, under the very court definition of sex that Clinton has been peddling, her denial of having sex was false and his affirmation was perjury.
2. Obstruction of justice. The day after his Jones testimony, Clinton called in Betty Currie and prompted her with patent falsehoods - "We were never really alone," "I never touched her, right?" etc. Clinton claims that he was just refreshing his memory. But since these are statements that both he and Currie knew to be false, he was refreshing not his memory but his perjury - and seeking hers.
Clinton knows that he committed these felonies, which is precisely why his lawyers keep flailing about pretending that technically he didn't. How to get him out of his box?
One proposed solution is censure. Clinton plea-bargains with Congress: He admits to the crimes and Congress rebukes the president and perhaps punishes him, but it shields him from further prosecution by Starr.
There are two problems with this solution, one legal, one prudential. First, Congress does not have the power to order a prosecutor, an officer of the Executive Branch, to call off his dogs.
Second and more important: In a crisis-ridden world, with the global economy teetering and the likes of North Korea readying intercontinental ballistic missiles, the United States cannot be left to be presided over by a political corpse, a man who has forfeited all authority to govern. In the words of as staunch a Democrat as Joseph Califano: "Clinton is finished as a serious president whether he stays in office or not."
Hence the solution, obvious and with very clear precedent: Clinton resigns and his successor immediately pardons him for all Starr-related crimes.
This, of course, is what happened with Nixon. But President Ford issued the pardon the wrong way, suddenly and on his own.
The right way is for a pardon to be openly proposed in advance of resignation by a bipartisan Congress. Congress asks Al Gore to clear Clinton of legal jeopardy for the sake of the country and for the sake of justice. One does not add to the eternal disgrace of resignation, the prospect of jailing an ex-president. Given the nature of these crimes, that would be extraordinarily excessive.
No indictment, no trial, no jail, no impeachment, no endless hearings, no wallowing in Lewinsky. And no conundrum.
The punishment, moreover, is fitting. Clinton's crimes are not about sex but about deliberately subverting the execution of the laws. However, given the nature of this case, they do not rise to the level of high crimes. They are low crimes. High crimes call for impeachment. Low crimes call for resignation.