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Trail of Lies By: Richard Cohen
Washinton Post | Tuesday, December 01, 1998



COME WITH ME back to the 1984 presidential campaign and a car carrying Gary Hart. I am in it, too, having been transferred from the press bus so I could interview the candidate. I have many questions for him, but I save the one that matters most to me to the very end: Why did you change your date of birth?

Hart fumed. Why have I asked that? It's an old question. No one cares about it. He wasn't trying to avoid the draft. Check it out. Or to become eligible for public office. Check that out, too. I agree. All these explanations have been checked out. That's why I had come to think of Hart as the 3.9-man. With him, two and two sometimes didn't make four.

I was about to say it is the same with Bill Clinton—but it is not. With him, two and two add up to so much more than four. He does not withhold, he augments—says anything he wants to get him out of whatever spot he's in. In the end, it is the same as it is with Hart: Something's a bit wrong. Less and more—in neither case does it have the round sound of truth.

I am not only referring to Clinton's statements regarding his affair with Monica Lewinsky. They remind me of what Mary McCarthy said about Lillian Hellman: "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.' " And while they might be understandable, what another person might do if he or she were caught in such an embarrassing situation, they incorporate something peculiarly Clinton: assertions that everyone knows are untrue but which cannot be proved so.

Kenneth Starr knows this lie well. He mentioned a prime example when he testified recently before the House Judiciary Committee. Starr recalled the time last spring when Clinton was asked by reporters why his lawyers had invoked executive privilege to block Hillary Rodham Clinton and others in the White House from testifying before the grand jury. The date was March 24. The President was traveling in Africa. This is what he said:

"You should ask someone who knows. I haven't discussed that with the lawyers. I don't know."

Lest you think that was a slip of the tongue, Clinton essentially repeated his statement to Walter Isaacson, Time's managing editor. In an Air Force One interview on the way back from Africa, Isaacson asked for the legal justification of executive privilege.

"I think you have to ask my counsel's office because the first time I learn about a lot of these arguments is when I see them in the paper."

But on Nov. 19, Starr said that just a week before Clinton made those statements, White House counsel Charles Ruff had sworn otherwise. In a secret affidavit filed in federal court Ruff "swore that he had discussed the assertion of executive privilege with the President and the President had approved its invocation."

Why lie about a matter that would soon become a matter of public record? Why not take responsibility for your own policy and not act, as Clinton did, as if you were a passive client? It's not, mind you, that anyone believed the President at the time. It's rather—and here's the nub of it—that no one could then prove otherwise.

This has been Clinton's MO, an in-your-face assertion of something that simply cannot be disproved. Remember the advice he purportedly gave Gennifer Flowers—that if both parties to an affair deny it, no one can prove otherwise? If you say it didn't happen, it didn't happen—even though everyone knows it did.

This kind of behavior induces a sort of rage in others. It clearly pitched Starr into a medieval madness and helps explain why the mere mention of Clinton's name sets much of official Washington to foaming at the mouth (often on television) and vowing to help the man pack—if only he would leave town.

In Hart's case, his unwillingness or inability to explain why he had changed his year of birth from 1936 to 1937 came to symbolize what was different—weird—about the man. It certainly did his campaign no good.

Clinton, of course, gained the presidency, but his evident belief that he could lie his way out of anything has cost him his legacy. The President's bold and effective moves in the Middle East peace process and this amazing economy are among his noteworthy accomplishments. Yet Clinton is not likely to be remembered for any of that, but instead for the petit lies he told others and the whopper he seemed to believe himself: that, in the end, the lies wouldn't matter much at all.




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