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Political Wrap with Mark Shields and Paul Gigot

January 19, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Some final words now from Shields and Gigot– syndicated columnist Mark Shields, Wall Street Journal columnist, Paul Gigot. Mark, the deal with the independent prosecutor, Mr. Ray, was it a proper and just resolution of the case?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it was, Jim. I think there is no question that public opinion measured as recently as the Wall Street Journal poll this week showed people did not want Bill Clinton to be indicted; they didn’t want him to be tried. They wanted this to be over. And I think Bill Clinton had worked tirelessly, listening to the historians talk about his own concern, about his legacy. He worked tirelessly, almost frenetically to come up with a major breakthrough in the last days whether it was Northern Ireland or the Middle East.

JIM LEHRER: The Middle East.

MARK SHIELDS: And this wasn’t the announcement he was looking for, I’m sure. But I think it is an announcement the country will accept.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Paul?

PAUL GIGOT: I don’t know. There is no question Mark is right about the public desire to close this. The polls were about two to one really. But Robert Ray had the duty to show that nobody is above the law. And that is his sworn oath as a prosecutor. Whether this is a balance that’s appropriate, I thought that Robert Ray bent over a little bit here toward the side of getting this case over.

JIM LEHRER: You think he should have gone ahead and prosecuted him?

PAUL GIGOT: I don’t know all of the facts that he had. I think though his obligation as a prosecutor was to leave the ultimate questions, maybe leave the question of a pardon to George W. Bush. What Bill Clinton gave up here was not that much — as Tom Oliphant and Stuart were talking about – basically he gave up the word “false.” That’s what he admitted here. There wasn’t a lot of movement. He didn’t admit – he didn’t have to use the word lie. And the five-year sanction is, for the law license, I don’t think he was going to practice law anyway. He did face disbarment in Arkansas. So I think maybe the fact that he settled it is good. The sanction seems to me to be that Robert Ray did pretty well here for Bill Clinton.

JIM LEHRER: Pretty well?

MARK SHIELDS: I disagree. I think the sanctions are serious. And I think there’s an admission there that, look, I went in and did not tell the truth. And I attempted to be evasive. I attempted to be clever, but I overstepped the bounds and it is going to cost me five years. Losing your law license for five years – I mean, usually that’s somebody trifling with somebody else’s estate or something of the sort — paying a fine. But I think that Robert Ray did a service, whether he intended to or not, to George W. Bush. This country politically is precarious right now. George W. Bush relies upon the goodwill that comes to a new President, the sense of national unity that we want this President to do well, we want our country to do well. Nothing would have been worse for his presidency and for that sense of goodwill, that climate, than to have Bill Clinton indicted, tried, whether George Bush should pardon him or not. We would have been right back where we were.

JIM LEHRER: What about that?

PAUL GIGOT: Well, there is no question that George W. Bush agrees with Mark on this one – and he sent that signal loud and clear saying I’m not going to pardon anybody before he is indicted. And his father, the former President, said I think we should put this behind us. And Orrin Hatch, the chairman of the Judiciary, said the Republicans did want this over with. There is no question about that. So, in that sense, Bush did not want to face that difficult issue. Of course that’s why, you know, they run for office, is to face some of those issues.

JIM LEHRER: What about doing it today, literally the afternoon of his last day as President of the United States, and according to what Tom and Stuart had said earlier, both of them reported Ray insisted on this — that it had to be done while Bill Clinton was still a sitting president.

PAUL GIGOT: If you are going to do a deal like this, it makes sense to do it today while he is President, while you still have maximum publicity, as Stuart said, and while it doesn’t trail off, that it does seem to be the fitting ending to the presidency. It is still part of his active presidential legacy. So in that I think that probably Robert Ray had to give something up in order to get that.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, what do you think about today?

MARK SHIELDS: I think today, I could understand Robert Ray not wanting to do it, you know, so it’s buried in the truss ads on page 27 two weeks from now. I mean it gets attention. It’s an admission, a confession on the part of the President. And he is the President doing it. I think it makes sense. And for Bill Clinton, it gets stepped on by the weekend news, which is the inauguration of a new President, the speech he gives tomorrow and Jesse Jackson yesterday and whatever and whoever he pardons tonight.

JIM LEHRER: Well, there is word that he will pardon some folks before he leaves office.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s a big day.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Let’s go back to the general conversation about Bill Clinton. The two of you have spent a lot of time on this program on Friday nights and other times talking about the presidency of Bill Clinton. Sitting here tonight, based on what you’ve heard the other ones say, too…

PAUL GIGOT: They were fabulous.

JIM LEHRER: What would you say about him? How would you characterize this man? What do you have to say about Bill Clinton?

PAUL GIGOT: I think something a colleague of mine Dan Henninger at the Wall Street Journal wrote. He said that Bill Clinton made himself larger than life and in the process made the presidency smaller. I mean, he was great theater. He was so interesting, his life was so interesting, the way he carried himself. He had so much talent. And yet we talk so much– we know– he once said he wanted to demystify the presidency. In a way he demystified it too much. I mean, we learned about boxers and briefs – the psycho drama of his marriage and his relationship with Al Gore. His legacy, I think, is relatively small for a two-term President. The footprints are too small, particularly after 1994. I think he was mostly tactical. He responded to Republicans. He was brilliant at that. He was brilliant at –

JIM LEHRER: Did he outfox the Republicans most of the way?

PAUL GIGOT: For an awful lot of it he outfoxed them but only in a partial way because remember Republicans have now won the House four times in a row. They hadn’t held it for 40 years. He did it in a way that helped him, didn’t always help his party. Got some things done, but had to change his mind on a lot of issues along the way: Trade, welfare. He ended up signing things that Republicans tried to get, welfare reform, for 20 or 30 years.


MARK SHIELDS: Jim, two quick anecdotes. One reported by Jim Hoagland, the Pulitzer Prize winning foreign policy columnist for the Washington Post talking about having a recent dinner with Bill Clinton, where he just asked the question, sort of in a polite way about his trip to Asia in which Bill Clinton in the course of the answer said, you know, the per capita income in Vietnam is $359. That’s about the same as Pakistan. And Hoagland, who is a very knowledgeable guy, says, I had to take his word for it. David Gergen when he was counsel to Bill Clinton told a story about a briefing — four of the ranking experts in medicine are in the Oval Office briefing Bill Clinton on a very arcane area of the health plan. Clinton is sitting there and driving Gergen angry as a counselor to him doing the New York Times Sunday cross word puzzle in ink – in ink. He is seething. He said these people have given up their weekend. 20 minutes into the discussion he looks up, Jim, and asks the one trenching question nobody in the room had even thought of — that’s how able he was.

Now the only reason we know these two stories is because two privileged observers tell them. We should have known them through the press conferences. I mean, he could have used the press conferences as a great educational device, as a great advocacy device, but he couldn’t. Why couldn’t he? Because we didn’t have press conferences because he was on the defensive. Sometimes his political opponents but often times self-inflicted whether it was the Travel Office, whether it was investigations about Whitewater, whether it was the impeachment or Paula Jones. He never used the press conference. We never saw him. He could have changed the job description of President to a point where we would have said, gee, a President really should know those things and George W. Bush would have been hard pressed to meet that standard.

As far as the Democrats are concerned, Paul is right. He drove the Republicans bats. Mark Russell, America’s greatest humorist, said that Bill Clinton gets impeached, he has an affair with the White house intern and the result is that the Republican Speaker of the House resigns, which was true in 1998. I mean Newt Gingrich resigns and Bob Livingston follows him out the door and Bill Clinton survives. They said of Grover Cleveland, Democrats did, we love him for the enemies he has made. Every time Democrats got down on Bill Clinton, and they did and they were disappointed and he was dazzling and disappointing ultimately, there was a fondness for him because the people on the other side hated him as much as any liberals ever hated Richard Nixon. It was an irrational passion.

JIM LEHRER: What is the… Where did the seeds come for this intense dislike of Bill Clinton from intense conservatives?

PAUL GIGOT: Well, I think part of it is what Richard Norton Smith talked about, which is a legacy of the 60s, which was such a polarizing time, and the cultural divide that has come out of that. I also think it is part of — it is generational, the baby boom generation – but it’s also I think that — the relentless lying, what is perceived by his opponents as he just doesn’t tell the truth at all — everything. This is a guy who comes out for campaign finance reform.

JIM LEHRER: Is that uniquely Clinton?

PAUL GIGOT: I think he shares that with Richard Nixon. That’s what liberals thought about Nixon, too; that Nixon was not honest, either. I think that they have that– they made their opponents on either side think that about them.

MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s deeper than that. I think there are striking parallels here. Richard Nixon was the poster boy of a decade Democrats and liberals hated, the 1950s, Joe McCarthy, the smear, you’re guilty until proved innocent. Then Nixon gets elected and comes to office at a time of Democratic ascendancy when the Democrats are the dominant party, and what does he do – he preempts their agenda, Richard Nixon indexes the Social Security payment to the cost of living; Richard Nixon creates the Environmental Protection Agency. Richard Nixon has quotas and affirmative action in government contracts and hiring. Bill Clinton did the opposite. He was the poster boy of the 60s. It was flag burning, it was dope — it was sexual promiscuity — all those things we didn’t participate in, — and along he comes at a time of Republican conservative ascendancy and he co-opted them and neutralized them. And he balanced the budget. He cut taxes. He cut welfare and I think he just — he stole their clothes while they were in swimming.

JIM LEHRER: Are you going to miss him?

PAUL GIGOT: Jim, in some ways I am. I think sometimes that if I had known in 1992 what he would have done for my career in political journalism, I might have voted for him. He has been very good for business.

MARK SHIELDS: Paul is not going to have a chance to miss him because he is not going to go away. I mean, he is here.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Thank you both very much.