Joe Klein and the Comeback Kid


On March 6, independent counsel Robert Ray released the final 237-page report on Bill Clinton’s relationships with the rule of law. Sufficient evidence did exist, he said, to prosecute Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice in the cover-up of his assignations with Monica Lewinsky.

Ray added, “President Clinton’s offenses had a significant adverse impact on the community, substantially affecting the public’s view of the integrity of our legal system.”

In An Affair of State: The Investigation, Impeachment, and Trial of President Clinton (Harvard University Press), Richard A. Posner—a former chief judge of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals—provides what he considers evidence that Clinton was guilty of serial perjury, tampering with witnesses, and subornation of perjury. Posner writes that a conservative estimate of the sentence for those offenses, committed by an ordinary citizen, would be “30 to 37 months” in prison.

But Robert Ray had used his discretion as a prosecutor not to bring those charges. After all, said Ray, the man had suffered through the impeachment process, paid $1 million in fines, and had his law license suspended for lying under oath—”adequate substitutes for criminal prosecution.”

Responding in the March 2001 American Lawyer, Akhil Reed Amar, author of The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction (Yale University Press), asked: “Even if discretion counseled against indicting ex-president Clinton, should Clinton be given permanent immunity—the functional equivalent of an acquittal or a pardon?”

Many Americans appear to agree with Alan Brinkley, chairman of Columbia University’s history department, that enough is enough. “I think this [Ray] report,” Brinkley told The New York Times, “is a tinny echo of a happily lost era. There are certainly people who cannot get enough of any charge against Clinton. That group aside, though, I doubt anyone wants to think about this anymore.” Why not permanent immunity?

For those, however, who might want to glance back at the Man From Hope’s presidency, there is a widely publicized and often admired new book, The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton (Doubleday) by Joe Klein, a political reporter for The New Yorker, which used to have Richard Rovere in that job. But times and standards do change.

In its February 11 issue, Publishers Weekly forecast success for Klein’s book. “Who won’t want to pick up this careful analysis by one of the nation’s foremost political observers?. . . This is sure to be a big seller.” Joe Klein has made the interview rounds, saying repeatedly that “Bill Clinton conducted a serious, substantive presidency” and that “this [era] will be remembered more for the ferocity of its prosecutions than for the severity of his crimes.”

The Natural is not straight-out hagiography. Klein is critical of various Clinton failures, and of his priapic propensities. What Klein leaves out, however, makes fatuous his assertion that Clinton ran “a serious, disciplined, responsible presidency.”

In next week’s column, I will cite just a few of the serious assaults on the Bill of Rights committed by this former professor of constitutional law at the University of Arkansas. I’ve detailed many others in previous columns, presaging them with a March 1992 Voice piece, called “The Executioner as President,” which described his telling black voters on the campaign trail that capital punishment more often takes care of the killers of black people.

In March of that same year, the American Bar Association Journal had noted that the killers of whites in Georgia were nearly “10 times more likely to receive a death sentence than killers of blacks.” Similar color-coded disparities existed in other states. But Clinton, naturally, was a compelling liar. Klein calls capital punishment a “substantially irrelevant issue.”

In 1997, Robyn Blumner, a former ACLU official now on the editorial board of the St. Petersburg Times, noted in her nationally syndicated column that “Clinton [as president] has supported warrantless searches of public housing residences, drug testing of high school athletes without any suspicion of their drug use, and the use of roving FBI wiretaps without a court order.

“Clinton,” she continued, “has signed into law legislation that strips the courts of jurisdiction to hear claims of rights violations by immigrants and prisoners, both marginal populations with virtually no political power. And his Justice Department argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that a criminal defendant could be sentenced for crimes of which he was acquitted.” You won’t find any of that in The Natural—nor anything about Clinton’s attack on habeas corpus in the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.

The very nadir of his presidency, also overlooked by Klein and his applauding reviewers, came as a result of Clinton’s amorality and his obsession with making room for himself on Mount Rushmore. Clinton chose not to save hundreds of thousands of lives before the 1994 holocaust in Rwanda took its ghastly course.

For the grisly details, see not Joe Klein but two new books: A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power (Basic Books) and The Fifty-Year Wound: The True Price of America’s Cold War Victory by Derek Leebaert (Little, Brown). As I have written, Clinton and the UN were warned that huge numbers of Tutsis would soon be slaughtered, but Kofi Annan, in charge of the UN’s peacekeeping and later a Nobel laureate, was silent. And with elections coming here, and voters angry over the loss of American lives in Somalia, Clinton ordered that the word genocide not be used by his administration in connection with Rwanda. Madeleine Albright, then our representative at the UN, delayed any action, on White House orders, until it was too late—800,000 Tutsis were killed in a month.

A mere 5000 UN troops, supported by the United States, could have stopped the killings, because the Hutu murderers were armed largely with machetes. Four years later, in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, William Jefferson “the Natural” Clinton, sounding like Uriah Heep, actually said, “All over the world there were people like me sitting in offices, day after day, who did not fully appreciate the depth and speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror.”

Kirkus Reviews: “A supremely fascinating look at a ‘serious, substantive presidency.’ No journalist is better matched to this subject than Klein.”

Related Article:

Joy Press’s review of The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton by Joe Klein