Impeachment Debate: Perjury a matter of semantics

Legal Arguments
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The Independent Online
IF THERE was a perfect issue on which to wage the climactic battle of the Clinton presidency, this is it: not a matter of high policy, not an act of egregious criminality, not even a foreign war. Just a maddening, legalistic quibble.

No president in US history - and few lawyers for that matter - can match Bill Clinton for his adeptness at semantics, his ability to leave himself verbal bolt holes invisible to the naked eye. Not for nothing has he been known from his old Arkansas days as Slick Willie.

But if the House does impeach him on two counts of perjury and send him for trial in the Senate, even he will be pressed to square the circle.

Perjury to the layman is pretty straightforward. It is defined as "knowingly making a false statement about material facts while under oath."

Twice in the Lewinsky affair he has given evidence under oath, and twice he has told what any normal human being would consider whoppers.

Not, however William Jefferson Clinton.

Did he have "sexual relations" with the said Monica? Depends what you mean by sexual relations. For Mr Clinton (and a few dusty dictionaries) "sexual relations" means "sexual intercourse." Anything short of that, including oral sex, doesn't count.

But what if he touched Monica's breast ? That is what she says but, the President points out, only she says so. And that ain't perjury, his lawyers contend, just an honest disagreement among friends. Ah but was he ever alone with Monica?

Can't remember, says Bill - and his lawyers leap to point out that therefore he has never testified he was never alone with her. Of course, saying you don't remember something when you do is perjury. But trying proving that one in court.

And so it goes on: over the presents the President gave the intern; over the date of his last meeting with Ms Lewinsky, and whether or not they discussed the subpoena she faced. "I don't know," Mr Clinton said.

Waste not pity on the President certainly - but spare a thought for the Senate. It's got to pick a way through the fog.