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Published: Saturday, 7/19/2003

Out of power

BILL and Hillary Clinton have been slapped with a stinging example of what it means to be out of power politically.

A special federal appeals court panel has ruled that the former President and First Lady may be reimbursed by the government for only $85,000 of the $3.5 million in legal fees they spent fending off charges in the original Whitewater investigation.

The probe of Whitewater, a failed Arkansas land deal from the 1970s, resulted in no charges against the Clintons, but it set the stage for a seven-year, $70 million federal investigation that culminated in Mr. Clinton's impeachment for lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

The Clintons sought relief under the now-defunct special-prosecutor statute, which provided reimbursement for unindicted defendants.

In rejecting most of the fees, the appellate judges said there is “no doubt” that the Justice Department would have investigated the Clintons anyway, even without Robert Fiske and his successor, the infamous Kenneth Starr, breathing down their necks.

That's a highly debatable conclusion. Mr. Fiske found no wrongdoing by the Clintons in Whitewater but the appointment of Mr. Starr in 1994 kept the legal snowball rolling until it became the avalanche that finally engulfed the White House.

It is no coincidence that the three-judge panel that ruled against the Clintons this week included two Republican appointees, David Sentelle, who led the original choice of Mr. Starr, and Peter Fay, who voted in the past with Judge Sentelle to let Mr. Starr continue his work.

Their ruling also departs sharply from past practice. Ronald Reagan was reimbursed for 72 percent of his legal bills after the Iran-contra investigation, while his vice president, George H.W. Bush, got back 59 percent.

Despite these partisan overtones, a large body of Americans undoubtedly believe that the taxpayers should not be stuck with any of the Clintons' legal bills, now reported to total $6.5 million. The ex-president previously agreed not to seek reimbursement for his legal defense in the Lewinsky affair.

The broader perspective, however, is this: The Clintons have a right to complain that they've been wronged, but they should not be surprised. This is what it means to be in the political party that's out of power.

The judges' ruling is a prime example of what happens when one party effectively controls the country's agenda and debate. And the Republicans have done so for the past two decades, even when Mr. Clinton occupied the White House. The Democrats, in contrast, have lost their way and cannot muster a coherent philosophy.

At $100,000 a pop, Mr. Clinton will have to give a lot of speeches to pay his legal bills. Given his eagerness to do so, and the willingness of others to pay the fee, we have no doubt that he is up to the task.

But his party's mission - getting Democrats back into power, and the appointment of friendlier judges - may continue to be far more elusive.



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