ON FRIDAY, A FEDERAL JUDGE in Washington rejected the Clinton administration's claims of "Secret Service privilege," a previously unknown legal theory that would have prevented members of the president's Secret Service detail from having to testify before the Lewinsky grand jury, even if they had information relevant to the independent counsel's criminal investigation. The White House counsel's office, as well as the Treasury and Justice departments, tried hard to keep the agents from testifying, though it's not surprising they failed.

By legal standards, Secret Service privilege was a remarkable idea, "completely unprecedented in American law," as independent counsel Kenneth Starr pointed out. But it was not the most remarkable claim the Clinton administration has made recently. Last week, the White House also declared that, although three different executive-branch legal offices had spent more than a month lobbying for Secret Service privilege, Bill Clinton had nothing to do with the effort. In this case, his spokesmen claimed, the president has been utterly disconnected from the workings of his administration.

Needless to say, a lot of people didn't believe it. But what if it was true? What if the president really didn't know what was going on? What if Bill Clinton turned out to be as detached and forgetful a leader as Ronald Reagan was always accused of being? It's not as preposterous as you might think. Spend some time reading his public statements, and Clinton begins to make Reagan look like a championship contestant on Feopardy.

Consider the Clintons' trip to Africa this March. While the president's entourage was in Uganda, reporters learned that Clinton had attempted to prevent the testimony of White House aide Sidney Blumenthal by invoking executive privilege (not to be confused with the newfangled Secret Service privilege). Asked about the development at an impromptu press conference, the president looked baffled. "All I know is, I saw an article about it in the paper today," he replied, as if unaware that he is the only person in America who can invoke executive privilege and that any document doing so would bear his signature. "I don't know. You should ask someone who knows." The Washington Post seemed surprised by his forgetfulness -- "The president responded as though he were a bystander in the controversy, rather than its central character" -- but it wasn't Clinton's first brush with memory loss.

Years back, early in the 1992 presidential campaign, the candidate was asked to comment on reports that his uncle, Raymond Clinton, had pressured an Arkansas draft board to exempt him from being inducted. Clinton seemed shocked. "It's amazing to me," he said. It wasn't until the next day, when confronted with contradictory evidence, that Clinton remembered that -- oh, yes -- he had known about what his uncle did.

An embarrassing moment, but not the last. In the ensuing years, Clinton has forgotten all sorts of things, from meeting Paula Jones, to making fund-raising calls from the White House, to having conversations about money with his old friend David Hale. Clinton's memory seemed to get worse with time, and even when he could remember things, he sometimes seemed ignorant of what was happening around him. When the travel-office scandal exploded, for example, Clinton said he had no idea that there was an FBI investigation going on in the White House, or that his aides had ordered it. When questioned under oath about Whitewater, Clinton claimed he didn't know a thing about what Susan and Jim McDougal, his business partners, were doing with his money -- had no knowledge of land they had bought, didn't know about loans they had taken out on his behalf. The president's wife, who apparently also is forgetful, said she was unaware that Jim McDougal had been paying off some of her personal loans. When the now-famous missing billing records suddenly appeared in the private living quarters of the White House, Mrs. Clinton explained that she had "no idea" how they got there. Neither of the Clintons seemed to know that, in the days before he died, deputy White House counsel Vince Foster, one of their closest friends, had been working on several years' worth of their overdue Whitewater tax returns.

And, speaking of friendship, the president claimed to be unaware that his friends Mack McLarty and Vernon Jordan were soliciting consulting contracts for another of his friends, Webb Hubbell, who was -- again, unbeknownst to Clinton -- about to be indicted.

Anything having to do with fund-raising seems to trigger the Clintons' mental block. After Charlie Trie showed up in the first lady's office with $ 460,000 in donations for her legal-defense fund, to name one instance, Mrs. Clinton said she didn't know how he had gotten there. In fact, though her husband had been a friend of Trie's for two decades, Mrs. Clinton claimed that she wasn't even sure who he was.

Johnny Chung? According to the Clintons, he was a complete mystery, too. Mrs. Clinton said she didn't have a clue as to why Chung was allowed into her office at the White House more than 20 times, though it probably had something to do with her over-enthusiastic staff.

"The only way I can explain it is that what they thought they were doing is being courteous," the first lady said. In 1996, the FBI heard -- accurately, it turned out -- that Chung was being used by the Chinese military to influence American elections. The Justice Department warned the White House about Chung, but again, the Clintons were the last to know. It wasn't until he read it in the newspaper, the president said, that he learned of Chung's connection to the Chinese government.

Then there are the little things. Like the time the president spent more than an hour getting his hair cut on the tarmac at LAX in 1993 and didn't notice that Air Force One was holding up commercial air traffic. "I'd never do that," Clinton explained later. Or the time later that year when he withdrew Lani Guinier's nomination to head the Justice Department's civil-rights division after suddenly learning -- only "today," he emphasized -- that Guinier had argued in favor of "proportional representation" electoral systems. It seems the president had forgotten to catch any of the scores of news accounts of Guinier's views published that month. He definitely hadn't been reading the New York Times, which had run stories on Guinier's support of proportional representation going back to 1985.

How forgetful is Bill Clinton? His wife gave America some indication in her first interview after the Lewinsky scandal broke. Learning about the existence of Monica Lewinsky, Mrs. Clinton told the Today show, had been a terrible shock, both to her "and to my husband. I mean, you know, he woke me up Wednesday morning and said, 'You're not going to believe this, but . . .' And I said, 'What is this?' And so, yeah, it came as a very big surprise . . . ."

The strange thing is, Mrs. Clinton's husband had testified under oath about Monica Lewinsky less than a week before. In just that short period, he had forgotten all about the former intern. A harmless symptom of advancing middle age? Perhaps. Or maybe there are simply too many scandals to keep track of.

Tucker Carlson is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

Next Page