President Clinton has ordered the federal government to start using "plain language" in official documents in order to "send a clear message about what the government is doing." One wishes the president would apply the directive to himself, his staff, and his legions of lawyers in their refusal to fully cooperate with the office of the independent counsel.
Is this the way honest people behave? One of the president's lawyers, Charles Ruff, said with a straight face that Mr. Clinton's legal maneuverings are not about obstruction of justice but about principle. This is an administration that has repeatedly demonstrated it has no principles and is willing to bend or break any law to sustain its power.
The president and his men (and first lady) realized they would probably lose a claim of executive privilege before the Supreme Court, so their fallback position was that attorney-client privilege should prevent top aide and keeper of evidence Bruce Lindsey from testifying before a grand jury. That claim has already been dismissed by Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, who rejected the same reasoning administration lawyers used in their executive-
privilege claim. The issue is important not because it is about "private sexual matters" in the Monica Lewinsky affair, as Clinton defenders claim, but because it involves sexless matters such as suborning of perjury and obstruction of justice.
The administration daily demonstrates its reluctance to get the facts out to duly authorized investigators and to the public. Even if Mr. Lindsey is eventually forced to tell what he knows, which the spinners are already telling us is nothing, it's unlikely he'll be to Mr. Clinton what John Dean was to President Nixon. Mr. Dean had to have a shred of decency to confront Mr. Nixon about the "cancer growing on your presidency" and to spill the beans to the special prosecutor. Mr. Clinton just shreds decency.
Every one of the administration's maneuvers is about delaying a day of reckoning with the truth. With 31 months to go in this presidency and with a legal process that is notoriously slow, the Clinton administration thinks it can run out the clock.
Two major newspapers that endorsed the president's election in 1992 and reelection in 1996 now seem to regret their decisions. In an editorial, The New York Times calls the latest maneuvers, "A White House Legal Dodge." It says President Clinton "will continue to impede Mr. Starr's investigation" and that he demonstrates "a refusal to cooperate with a prosecutor's reasonable requests for information in a legitimate criminal inquiry." A Washington Post editorial says that Mr. Clinton's "public promises of cooperation continued to be belied." In the plain language preferred by the administration in other categories, belied means "to give a false impression." It appears just ahead of "believe" in my dictionary, a word that means "to consider to be true or honest." In other, even simpler words, The Washington Post is calling the president of the United States a liar.
Mr. Starr notes an executive privilege claim for government lawyers in criminal cases involving public officials is bogus and that the courts have so ruled. "Litigants often try to concoct new privileges by contending that their relationship is just as important as the attorney-client relationship or the spousal relationship," said Mr. Starr in a speech. "But their problem is that they make this argument in the wrong forum. If you want to expand an existing privilege, to apply it in a new and unusual area, then the place to go is Congress, not the courts."
Which is precisely where this administration wants to go, but for different reasons. The administration would prefer taking its case to Congress instead of to court. If it can get Mr. Starr's report submitted to Congress, it has sufficient allies to delay completion of the investigation and hope the public's attention will wane. It's worked before, and the scandal story would have gone away by now if a new one didn't crop up every few months.
The Clinton people have effectively hidden behind the institution of the presidency, which they continue to demean each day. The courts, not the Congress, have the best chance of holding them accountable to the law and prying loose the truth which, in plain language, this bunch is unwilling to tell.
© 1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate