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by William H. Benson

June 9, 2011

     June is the month for weddings and for celebrating Father’s Day, a season and a day for happily reuniting with family and relatives.

     And yet, for some, the recent news has been less than joy-filled. Steven Richards was hauled into a North Carolina court last week to answer a series of felony charges for secretly spending campaign money, more than $925,000, in 2008 in order to cover up his adultery that resulted in a child. Last month Arnold Schwarznegger, the former Governor of California, admitted to an affair with his housekeeper a dozen years ago that resulted in a child: Maria Shriver, his wife, wants a divorce.

    Jesse Jackson confessed to the same several years ago. Two men—Gary Hart and Ted Kennedy—may have missed their opportunity to run for the Oval Office because of their affairs: Gary Hart with Donna Rice, and Ted Kennedy with Mary Jo Kopeckne.

     Two weeks ago Mitch Daniels, the widely-respected Indiana governor, bowed out of the 2012 Presidential race because his wife had left him years before, married another, and then returned back to him. For her, the scrutiny would have been unbearable “in this sophisticated and transparent age.”

     This fascination with opening up and then gaping at prominent people’s private lives is a new phenomenon in American society. As recently as fifty years ago, the press cast a blind eye to the egregious actions of powerful and rich people: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and John F. Kennedy would never have withstood an investigation.

     This all changed with William Jefferson Clinton.

     Recently, I came across an interesting interpretation of the impeachment and trial of Bill Clinton. In a lecture given by Alan M. Dershowitz, the Harvard legal professor stated that Bill Clinton’s lawyer, Robert Bennett, should never have permitted Clinton to testify before the grand jury. However, Bennett never informed Clinton that he did not have to do so, and this, Dershowitz said, was very bad legal advice. In fact, he considers it the number one legal blunder of the twentieth century.

     Paula Jones was suing Bill Clinton, the President, in a civil case for harassment, that occurred when he was Governor of Arkansas. She was asking for $750,000 in damages, which sounds like a lot of money, but was far less than what he ended up spending on legal fees. If Bill Clinton had submitted, that is paid that amount to the court, the case would have closed.

     Dershowitz said Clinton should have made a speech. “You have elected me President twice. I cannot serve as your President if I have to spend an enormous amount of time preparing for a deposition and a trial. I will pay the amount they are requesting, and this is the last time I will speak on this matter.” If he had paid and said that, he may have endured a day or two of bad press, and it would have ended.

     Instead, he testified, and these depositions are far-reaching, bringing in extraneous matters wholly unrelated to the case. Where it ceased being a civil case and became a criminal one, was when he perjured himself when testifying about his foolish relationship with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern, in the cloak room of the Oval Office.

     Clinton—ashamed, tired, upset, and infuriated—obfuscated and parsed his words when grilled: “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” he answered one question.

     Members of the House of Representatives voted by a simple majority to impeach him, but in the trial in the Senate, the two-thirds majority failed. In his book My Life, Clinton wrote, “The vote on the perjury count failed by 22 votes, 45-55, and the vote on the obstruction of justice count failed by 17 votes, 50-50.” Clinton was allowed to serve out the remainder of his term. He won.

     Dershowitz believes that Clinton’s case broke the impeachment mechanism, that it was never the intent of the writers of the Constitution to permit private indiscretions to serve as the basis for an impeachment. That was reserved solely for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” outrageous dereliction of duties, and treasonous behavior.

     This case, Dershowitz argued, set a dangerous precedent. We are a country of common law. We look to past cases for guidance into the future. Was Bill Clinton’s conduct justification for removal? Will Congress and the Court dare to impeach a future President? He was an extraordinarily divisive President: Some loved him; others hated him. Much of this division fell along political lines.


     Despite his personal faults, in 1997, he signed the Balanced Budget Act, which Congress presented to him, and two years later the government projected a surplus of about $100 billion. Amazing.