Sat, 19 Sep 1998 09:57:32 EDT

Opinion: Clinton, Nixon and What It Means to Obstruct


MALIBU, Calif. -- Though many people take seriously Kenneth Starr's claim
that President Clinton lied in depositions and before the grand jury about his
sexual relationships with Monica Lewinsky, many lawyers who have publicly
evaluated the Starr report do not take seriously his argument that the
President obstructed justice. Certainly the President's own lawyers reject it.
The law, they contend, requires that the obstructer be shown to have behaved
"corruptly" in his efforts to influence a pending judicial proceeding.

I have a different view. Whatever the obstruction-of-justice issue may be
when brought before a judge, it is a most serious matter when brought before
Congress in a possible impeachment proceeding. It lay at the core of the case
against President Richard Nixon.

Nixon may not have ordered his aides to burgle the Watergate offices of the
Democratic Party, but the evidence from the White House tapes and the
testimony of John Dean showed that Nixon had in fact mobilized his staff to
conceal the White House's involvement in those episodes. He did so before
there was any judicial or legislative proceeding against him. Obstruction of
justice led to Nixon's resignation; had he not resigned, he would have been

The evidence brought by Mr. Starr is not a "smoking gun" of the sort that
the White House tapes supplied against Nixon. Perhaps, after a careful inquiry
into the Clinton scandal, the House Judiciary Committee may decide that the
evidence is too weak to support a finding of obstruction. But, absent some
effective rebuttal, the evidence put forward in the Starr report suggests not
only that the President lied to his senior staff members (and thus they,
unknowingly, misrepresented the facts in their grand jury testimony), but that
he worked hard to persuade Betty Currie to confirm his side of the story.

In her grand jury testimony, Mrs. Currie, the President's secretary, comes
close to admitting she knew that the President and Ms. Lewinsky were having an
affair. Mrs. Currie testified that she "had concern" that the relationship was
sexual. And well she might have: she personally arranged many of the meetings
between Mr. Clinton and Ms. Lewinsky, delivered unopened presents from Ms.
Lewinsky to the President, decided not to log in phone calls between the two
and would sometimes sneak Ms. Lewinsky to the Oval Office. She also retrieved
gifts that the President had given Ms. Lewinsky.

Other White House staff members suspected that a sexual relationship was
taking place, and some, including Evelyn Lieberman, the deputy chief of staff,
took steps to prevent the President and Ms. Lewinsky from being alone
together. (Mrs. Currie, too, showed her concern when she resisted the
President's efforts to get Ms. Lewinsky a job in the White House.)

After the President was deposed for the Paula Jones case in January 1998, he
began a systematic effort to conceal his involvement with Ms. Lewinsky. He
began by refusing six invitations to testify before the grand jury, Mr.
Starr's report says. He then told his aides that the stories about his sexual
involvement with Ms. Lewinsky were untrue -- knowing that they would testify
under oath in grand jury proceedings.

John Podesta, his deputy chief of staff, testified that the President said
he "never had sex with her in any way whatsoever."

The President said essentially the same thing to Erskine Bowles, his chief
of staff, according to Mr. Starr's report. And according to the testimony of
another aide, Sidney Blumenthal, the President said, "I haven't done anything
wrong." On the contrary, the President claimed, Ms. Lewinsky made sexual
demands on him, which he refused, and she then threatened to tell others that
they had had sex because she was a "stalker."

Mr. Starr's report also strongly suggests that the President tried to coach
his secretary about her testimony. Mrs. Currie testified to the grand jury
that Mr. Clinton said to her:

"You were always there when she was there, right? We were never really

"You could see and hear everything."

"Monica came on to me, and I never touched her, right?"

"She wanted to have sex with me, and I can't do that."

These were hardly questions, as the President later claimed in his own grand
jury testimony; they were statements. Mrs. Currie said to the President that
she agreed with him, though it is clear she knew that some -- possibly all --
were false.

Two or three days later, the President repeated these statements to Mrs.
Currie in order, apparently, to emphasize the importance of her agreeing with
him. In his own grand jury testimony, the President seemed unable to offer any
clear explanation for what will strike most observers as coaching a witness. 

The central difference between the conduct of Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon
is that important Nixon aides helped conspire with him to hush up testimony
while (so far as we know) important Clinton aides were the innocent objects of
Presidential lying and coaching.

Granting that difference, does the behavior of Nixon and Mr. Clinton differ
in any material respect? From what we know now, I think not. Both tried to
obstruct justice. President Clinton did so at a time when he knew there were
pending judicial proceedings -- namely, the taking of depositions and a grand
jury inquiry.

Whatever a judge may think of the legal subtleties, it is a mistake for
Congress to ignore them.

James Q. Wilson is the author of "Moral Judgment" and "The Moral Sense."

Friday, September 18, 1998
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