Clinton plays for time over Monica

President could be out of office before inquiry finishes, Mary Dejevsky writes from Washington
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WASHINGTON'S Bill and Monica show could run and run, it emerged yesterday, outlasting Mr Clinton's presidency and giving the independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, the sort of job security his peers could only dream of.

The prospect that the investigation into President Clinton's relationship with the White House trainee Monica Lewinsky might not be concluded as envisaged in the next few weeks was raised by the President's controversial decision to invoke "executive privilege" to shield conversations with aides.

Mr Clinton's legal team confirmed at the weekend that they were invoking executive privilege to excuse members of the President's team from answering certain questions in the Monica Lewinsky case.

The plea involved two of Mr Clinton's closest aides: Bruce Lindsey, his longtime associate and deputy legal adviser, and the White House media guru Sidney Blumenthal. Both aides have already testified before the investigation, but both were expectedto be recalled for further questioning. Yesterday however, a further scheduled appearance by Mr Blumenthal was postponed indefinitely.

Initially, Mr Clinton's decision to invoke executive privilege was seen as politically questionable. "Executive privilege" has had negative connotations ever since it was invoked by Richard Nixon during Watergate to keep his Oval Office tapes out ofthe investigation. He fought right up to the Supreme Court to keep the tapes private, lost, and the rest is history.

Since then, the whole concept of executive privilege has been commonly disparaged as an underhand means for a president to evade the law.

In Mr Clinton's case, the suspicion is that he may be trying to use a legal provision designed to protect national security to protect his own personal privacy or-- worse - to avoid a perjury charge.

This could follow if the investigation turned up evidence that he had lied under oath about the nature of his relationship with Ms Lewinsky.

However, one leading constitutional lawyer, Peter Shane of Pittsburgh University's law school, told the New York Times that apparent public support for Mr Clinton's right to keep his sex life private contrasted with public distaste for the cover-up of the Watergate burglary. The political liability might therefore have been exaggerated.

Others noted that what little Mr Clinton might have lost politically, he had gained massively in time. If the question of his right to claim executive privilege was challenged by Mr Starr, and went through the courts, there could be a delay of months, a year, or more.

A further factor could be the likely claim of executive privilege for Hillary Clinton, to cover conversations that she might have had with the two named advisers. The legal battle over the first lady's right to be covered by executive privilege could last even longer.

Meanwhile the investigation of the Lewinsky case would stall and it would become increasingly difficult to reconstruct a paper trail of deception in the White House - even if one existed.

Drawing out the case like this carries a price, not so much for Mr Clinton, as for the Vice-President, Al Gore. If the investigation were to drag on into the next presidential campaign, Mr Gore's association with the Clinton White House could prove an electoral liability.