In the end, William Jefferson Clinton left office last Saturday the way he governed for much of his second term as president: larger than life and hogging the headlines. But his deal to avoid criminal prosecution in the Paula Jones/Monica Lewinsky case was a satisfactory one, if only to put this long national distraction behind the nation.
The immediate beneficiary of the deal is President George W. Bush, who assumes office under a dark enough cloud of election dispute and whose fledgling administration would have been further bogged down by unending controversy over prosecution of Mr. Clinton. Mr. Bush wisely put himself on record as saying the matter should be cleared up before he took office, and it was.
Further, all sides can agree that the ex-president has incurred a substantial penalty, admitting for the first time that he testified falsely in a civil deposition, losing his license to practice law for five years, and paying a $25,000 fine to the Arkansas Bar Association, which sought to take his license permanently.
No mere slap on the wrist, the deal serves two essential purposes: It puts to rest the fears of those who believed that Mr. Clinton would escape any criminal penalty at all, effectively remaining above the law. And it demonstrates, with appropriate harshness, that there are consequences for a person who breaks the law, regardless of his public position.
Now that Mr. Clinton has been judged to have been accountable for his actions, it's also useful to remember that the whole sordid mess established that while a president should not be above the law, he should not be beneath it, either.
With the Whitewater, Travelgate, and Filegate matters producing only peripheral prosecutions, the dogged determination of Independent Counsel Robert Ray to nail Mr. Clinton for something struck many Americans as manipulation of the legal system on a grand scale, coupled with a thirst for vengeance by the political right.
Here was the case of Paula Jones, a civil litigant with an old and dubious sexual harassment claim against Mr. Clinton, being strung out by his political enemies to tortuous lengths to allow them to play criminal “gotcha” in the Monica Lewinsky affair. The initial evidence in the Lewinsky case was provided by illegal (in any other state but Maryland) wiretaps by a government mole guided and encouraged by other partisan enemies. And the improper dumping of the defendant's grand jury testimony into the public realm would get most cases of a similarly minor nature dismissed.
Fortunately, the U.S. Senate put a wise and bipartisan stop to this political holy war, deciding that Mr. Clinton's misdeeds did not warrant removal from office.
Nothing in the settlement of Mr. Clinton's legal difficulties can be said to excuse his personal misconduct. He has acknowledged, sincerely and on numerous occasions, that he has paid a high personal price for his affair with Ms. Lewinsky. In history, his name will rarely be mentioned without hers, tarnishing for all time a considerable record of achievement in the White House.