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Published: Wednesday, December 12, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Airbrushing an impeachment

It has been a banner year for Bill Clinton. The former president delivered a galvanizing speech, deemed by many on the left to lay out the best argument for re-electing President Obama, at the Democratic National Convention. During the Republican primary, Newt Gingrich and other GOP hopefuls frequently talked up the Clinton-era economy and the former president's ability to reach across the aisle. The Sunday New York Times ran a front-page story on whether Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will run for the Oval Office in 2016 -- and it didn't even mention Bill's 1998 impeachment.
Old news? That didn't stop the Gray Lady from running 19 stories, columns and blogs that mentioned Mitt Romney's dog Seamus by name this year. (Romney, you see, drove with the dog in a carrier strapped to his station wagon roof during a family vacation in 1983.)
I bring this up because, while opinion pages overflow with lamentations about today's hyper-partisanship, the Clintons had a lead role in widening America's political divide.
When former Arkansas employee Paula Jones sued President Clinton for sexual harassment, he told and stuck to a gratuitous lie about his sexual relationship with a White House intern. And Hillary Clinton, despite what reporter Jodi Kantor describes as "her activist feminist roots," was his greatest enabler.
The then-first lady blamed a "vast right-wing conspiracy" for independent counsel Ken Starr's "politically motivated" questioning of Monica Lewinsky, even though her husband was the chief architect of Starr's perjury trap.
The president could have refused to allow Jones' attorneys to depose him. Critics would have had a field day, and he might have been fined, but the president would not have lied under oath.
Or he could have told the truth. (Just kidding.)
In the end, a federal judge dismissed the suit because Jones failed to establish any economic damages. In his last day in office, Bill Clinton admitted to giving "false" answers to federal prosecutors as he agreed to a $25,000 fine and a five-year suspension of his Arkansas law license. The president also reached an $850,000 settlement with Jones.
The American people didn't get anything but too much information.
Of course, the secretary of state is a political figure in her own right: He's the big creep who lied under oath; she's a former senator, an accomplished fundraiser and a relentless campaigner. In a first for a female, she started the 2008 presidential primary as the Democratic front-runner.
Hillary Clinton also is a wily survivor. She's stayed in the political spotlight long enough for the country -- or at least the New York Times -- to have forgotten the rancor and the endless cable-news debates as to what Clinton meant when he denied "sexual relations" -- and whether his denial was accurate.
"Her status is singular but complicated," the Times reported -- "half an ex-presidential partnership," a woman at the peak of power and likely 2016 front-runner. No mention of the I-word.
"You'll never see a story about (President Richard) Nixon that doesn't say he resigned in disgrace," former Reagan speechwriter Ken Khachigian observed. There's a double standard so it's bad form to mention that Bill Clinton was the second U.S. president to be impeached.
That's good news for Mitt Romney. If he lives long enough, maybe Seamus won't make his obituary.
Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Her email address is dsaunders@sfchronicle.com

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