Bill Clinton is a liar. He's just not a big enough liar that he should have been impeached.
So said several panelists Monday night at a debate at the University of Utah Law School.The five-member panel included noted university political scientists, law and history professors, but the show was stolen by Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah -- who was one of the House prosecutors in Clinton's Senate trial -- and former Rep. Wayne Owens, who spoke in Clinton's favor before the House Judiciary Committee last year and was on the 1974 House Judiciary Committee that impeached former President Richard Nixon.
Owens said while Clinton lied under oath, the perjury was not material and didn't rise to the level of an impeachable offense.
And Clinton didn't obstruct justice. He was like "a deer in the headlights," knowing he was going to be crushed by the American press when he presented his public defense case before White House staff members. That act was incorrectly seen as obstruction of justice by partisan Republicans in the Congress, Owens said.
Clinton "has been an amazing president, all of his moral shortcomings aside," Owens said. "Here is a president who stole the Republican agenda. You want to know what his crime was? He stole their agenda, got it passed into law and left them (the Republicans) with abortion, tax cuts for the wealthy and chastity. And according to (Hustler magazine publisher) Larry Flynt, (Republicans) don't all practice the latter."
Several professors talked about the origin and meanings of "high crimes and misdemeanors" -- the causes for impeachment and removal of a president in the Constitution. Cannon agreed the Founding Fathers wouldn't have imagined that a president would be removed from office for sexual improprieties.
But the Clinton case has never been, and is not now, about that. It's about lying to a grand jury and in civil depositions and about obstruction of justice, Cannon said.
By preventing House prosecutors from calling all of the witnesses they wanted, and then taking a conviction vote, the U.S. Senate didn't allow closure of the process, Cannon said. "They allowed people to call (the Clinton matter) sexual promiscuity. But it was a high crime."
Owens said in the 1974 Nixon impeachment process the House determined -- correctly, Owens said -- that "high crimes" means crimes that only the president can commit -- acts against the nation's body politic.
They aren't crimes that any man or woman can commit, like lying before a grand jury -- for which, like any man or woman, a president can be held accountable after he leaves office.
There is a parallel between Nixon and Clinton in one respect, Cannon said.
Nixon was vilified for "coaching" John Dean about his upcoming testimony before a federal grand jury -- telling Dean to just say he couldn't remember key events in the Watergate cover-up. Clinton did the same thing with one of his top aides, Sidney Blumenthal, Cannon said.
But worse, Clinton told Blumenthal that Monica Lewinsky was a stalker and pursued sex with him. "(Clinton) set out to destroy the character of this girl. I think that is as bad as anything we blame Richard Nixon for," Cannon said.
The two-term Republican congressman said he believes the Clinton matter will cause "terrific damage to the Democratic Party in the long term."
But Owens believes it will be the Republicans who pay a political price, both in the 2000 election and for some elections to come.
U. political science department chairwoman Susan Olson said the Clinton impeachment was highly partisan. It wasn't because of the issues necessarily but because the 435 U.S. House districts have been so gerrymandered that something like 80 percent of the Republican seats are considered "safe" -- meaning the incumbents won by more than 55 percent of the vote in recent elections.
That means that even moderate GOP House members had to bend to the right wing of their party in the impeachment matter. If they didn't, they could be defeated in the next primary by right-wing candidates of their party.
U. law professor Michael McConnell said House Republicans should have been more partisan. If they had, they would have looked at the polls and seen that the American people didn't want the president impeached or removed from office.
If House Republicans had been better politicians, they wouldn't have put the people through this, he said. "They wouldn't have put themselves through this," McConnell added. But they acted on principle. Most seemed to really believe Bill Clinton shouldn't be president.
Finally, an audience member asked that considering Kenneth Starr is still investigating, and other matters could come to light or produce charges, what are the chances we'll see a "re-impeachment?"
"Zero," Owens said.
"Thank you," said Cannon in agreement.