How refreshing and how rare, to see the completion of justice twice in a single day. A duly appointed judge now has inflicted an appropriate penalty on the President for his recklessness and his lying under oath. And a duly impaneled jury has meted out a deserved humiliation to the independent counsel for his bullying and his partisan zealotry. There they were, Bill Clinton and Kenneth Starr, together at last, each punished in a manner befitting his excesses.
Judge Susan Webber Wright found, unsurprisingly, that Mr. Clinton had given “false, misleading and evasive answers that were designed to obstruct the judicial process.” She noted acidly that his “contumacious conduct in this case, coming as it did from a member of the bar and the chief law enforcement officer of this Nation, was without justification and undermined the integrity of the judicial system.”
The judge made only a passing and, in my view, somewhat understated concession to the President’s strange plight in the Paula Jones case. “Certainly the President’s aggravation with what he considered a ‘politically inspired lawsuit’ may well have been justified,” she wrote, “although the Court makes no findings in that regard.” The sense that Ms. Jones had abused the legal process for political and financial objectives helped Mr. Clinton keep his office, but it didn’t excuse his response to those provocations.
And since Mr. Clinton was forced to capitulate in that vexing litigation, she imposed a fitting punishment, ordering him to pay the expenses, including legal fees, that his attempt to mislead cost the Jones lawyers. That finding and order-rather than a perjury indictment or an article of impeachment, as the House Republicans eventually conceded-conformed to the offense of making false statements in a civil matter.
The judge could have imposed harsher penalties on Mr. Clinton, up to and including a summary finding of criminal contempt. She wisely and fairly chose not to do so. Although one of the President’s former legal advisers has suggested that Judge Wright’s decision could be challenged on constitutional grounds, that is an option he ought to pass up.
It is too bad that this moment arrived when the President is guiding the nation through armed conflict abroad. The reminder of his embarrassment at his own hands doesn’t enhance his status as Commander in Chief of the armed forces or as his stature as a leader of the NATO countries. But that, of course, is precisely the kind of situation he ought to have pondered before he responded so eagerly to the flirtations of a former intern. The only saving grace is that the particulars of his misconduct, in office and in court, are so familiar by now that few will be inclined to dwell on them.
As for Mr. Starr, he seems determined to add a vengeful coda to what was, in great measure, a failed inquisition. His decision to prosecute Susan McDougal, the “Joan of Arkansas” who already had done time for refusing to testify during a grand jury investigation, did not add to his reputation as a seeker of truth. It merely exposed to an audience beyond Arkansas what people there had known for years.
The independent counsel and his deputies would let nothing stand in the way of their mission to ruin the President, his family and his friends. Anyone who defied them would be destroyed.
Whatever one may think of Ms. McDougal, it is difficult not to admire her endurance in standing up to a power she viewed as illegitimate-not, like Mr. Clinton, attempting to escape the price of that defiance, but confronting it directly despite the personal costs. The recurring comparisons made by her and her able counsel Mark Geragos between Arkansas under Mr. Starr and Germany under Hitler were worse than silly-yet there was an aura of authoritarianism to the sight of this woman in leg irons, being hauled from one prison to another. That same mood will pervade the courtrooms when Mr. Starr brings his perjury case against Julie Hiatt Steele, unless he suddenly acquires the wisdom to drop those charges.
Mark Barrett, Mr. Starr’s deputy who tried the case against Ms. McDougal, told reporters that his superiors are considering whether to retry her on the contempt charges that deadlocked the jury. He indicated that he wants to interview the jurors first to see if he would have any chance of winning a conviction next time. Tempting as it must be for Mr. Starr to seek vindication, he would only be compounding vindictiveness with obstinacy by continuing to pursue Ms. McDougal.
Even the editorial page of The New York Times at last has urged Mr. Starr to forgo another McDougal trial and acknowledge that his investigation “has reached a point of diminishing returns.” He would indeed be better advised to spend whatever little time he currently devotes to his public job in preparing the report that is his final statutory obligation. Almost five years after his appointment, it is hard for most citizens to recall how and why this entire prosecutorial fiasco began. Mr. Starr still has much explaining to do about everything that has happened since.