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Indeed, several members of the White House Counsels Office would note that Clinton's background in constitutional law - as well as his agile mind - allowed him to immediately grasp the legal implications of numerous policy questions. The fact that he was "an attorney who happened to be a very bright fellow," one observed, made a "critical difference," for on constitutional issues his "faculty for understanding that was far greater" than that of a non-lawyer.
He spent hours with White House lawyers, for example, discussing the legal issues involved in the Securities Law Reform Act, the Brady Bill, and the Oklahoma City bombing. He also sought to reverse the position of the Justice Department, which had intervened on the side of a plaintiff challenging the constitutionality of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. One observer recalls that "after discussing the case for thirty minutes or so, the president walked in and engaged in an invigorating and free-ranging debate - the kind law professors die for - about tithing, the meaning of the Religion clauses and RFRA, and the application of the law to this case."
Later in his administration, Clinton issued school prayer guidelines for the attorney general and secretaries of education, setting out in detail the principles governing what types of religious activity in school are permissible under current law. In announcing his guidelines, which were distributed to every public school district in the country, the president stated: "Our Founding Fathers understood that religious freedom was basically a coin with two sides. The constitution protected the free exercise of religion but prohibited the establishment of religion. It's a careful balance that's uniquely American. It is the genius of the First Amendment. It does not make us a religion-free country as some people have implied. It has made us the most religious country in the world."
Clinton also had a high regard for lawyers. Two of his chiefs of staff were attorneys, as were several of his deputies. Many close friends and colleagues were attorneys, and, of course, his closest confidante, Hillary, was a lawyer as well. It was significant that he periodically dined with members of the White House Counsels Office; he valued their judgment and they appreciated Clinton's willingness to hear their views.
Still, although he was a student of the law, Clinton primarily focused on policy matters, remaining always the adroit politician. The two merged most forcefully in the Whitewater investigation, which involved independent counsel investigations - leading to such Watergate-sounding affairs as Filegate and Travelgate-and ultimately to the Lewinsky affair and impeachment proceedings.
Throughout the independent counsel investigations, Clinton responded as a politician and a lawyer. While he deferred to the legal judgments of White House counsel and his personal attorneys, the presidents' legal training made an important difference. As one close observer noted, the fact that he was a lawyer "added even more to his understanding of the illegitimacy of most of these charges...it added to his sense of outrage." I a final report, the last independent counsel to investigate this president concluded that there was no persuasive evidence of criminal wrongdoing in the Whitewater case by either the president of the first lady.