The following editorial appeared in today's Providence Journal:
Independent Counsel Robert Ray's bargain with Bill Clinton may not be perfect. But it does something most welcome: It takes the Lewinsky affair off the public books and puts it into the history books. Now George W. Bush, the new president, can focus on more important matters.
The deal was announced on Mr. Clinton's last full day in office. Mr. Clinton agreed to the loss of his Arkansas law license for five years and a $25,000 fine in return for signing a statement admitting guilt.
Under the deal, Mr. Clinton admitted "he knowingly gave misleading and evasive answers" in court when asked, in the context of the Paula Jones sexual-harassment case, whether he had engaged in sex with a White House intern. In misleading the court, Mr. Clinton "engaged in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice." That intention to deceive "interfered with the conduct of the Jones case by causing the court and counsel for the parties to extend unnecessary time, effort and resources, setting a poor example for other litigants and causing the court to issue a 32-page order civilly sanctioning Mr. Clinton."
Some critics say it is not justice to let someone caught lying in court dodge serious punishment by merely admitting to the fact. Especially when Mr. Clinton, to the last, tried to evade of responsibility for his conduct. On his last full day in office, he sent his lawyer out to deny that Mr. Clinton had lied in court. And, in a White House statement, Mr. Clinton said, "I tried to walk a fine line between acting lawfully and testifying falsely" - as if trying to fib legally is in some way an exoneration.
But who cares, ultimately, what Mr. Clinton thinks or says? The record shows he lied. (How much better off he, and the country, would have been had he just admitted the truth from the start!) He was found in contempt of court. And he is only the second president (Richard Nixon, the other) to be sanctioned through the loss (if temporary) of his law license.
Mr. Clinton's indictment and trial for lying would have been a huge distraction in the early months of his successor's administration. And it seems unlikely, after all that, that any jury would have punished him even as severely as Mr. Ray's deal does. It is best for the country to move on.
Does this slap on the wrist teach powerful politicians that they can get away with crimes? Any president who is tempted to lie under oath in the future can consult Mr. Clinton's ambiguous personal reputation, and decide whether law-breaking is really worth it.