State of the Union

How will scandal allegations affect America's agenda at home and abroad: Social Security, trade, Asia, Mideast?

The sky isn't falling. Today's "sex, lies, and audiotape" allegations are in some ways reminiscent of Watergate. But they splash into the living rooms of an America strikingly different from that of 1973, when the Watergate burglary trial set in train a political cataclysm.

Watergate jolted an America entering its worst recession since the Great Depression, shaken by the first '70s' oil shock, still mired in Vietnam, and nowhere near the end of the cold war.

Today's allegations fall on a US enjoying record prosperity, the lowest unemployment in a generation, nearing its first balanced budget in three decades, at peace, and rid of cold war fears.

True, confidence has been shaken by Asian tailspins. Confrontation with Iraq looms once more. And Americans tell pollsters they worry about both the values and financial future they are handing on to their children.

Furthermore, to the extent citizens tend to associate good times with their elected leader, they may now worry that crisis and stalemate in the White House could spell the end of a sunny era. That's wrong in both premise and conclusion. But it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy unless checked.

There's no magic formula for halting another "long national nightmare." But to find our way out of this sad drama it may be useful to (1) make an unblinking assessment of the legal and political factors; (2) look at their impact at home and abroad; and (3) suggest one simple course of action.

Assessing the allegations

President Clinton, like any other citizen, is not above the law. As such, he had to submit sworn, videotaped testimony in a Whitewater trial. As such, he was questioned under oath for six hours for the Paula Jones civil suit against him. Like any citizen he is entitled to a presumption of innocence. But many in Washington suggest that he has artfully dodged the truth in answering questions about allegations of adultery.

He reportedly changed his denial of one such affair, with Gennifer Flowers, in the Jones case deposition. He and his lawyers appear to be proceeding cautiously on the current Monica Lewinsky accusations because of his sworn statement in the same deposition that there was no adulterous affair with Ms. Lewinsky.

Mr. Clinton's defenders argue, rightly, that there is a large cottage industry of zealots who purvey lurid tales about Vincent Foster's suicide and Arkansas drug pipelines to bring down the president. But that doesn't justify past White House footdragging on turning over subpoenaed evidence, or efforts to demean witnesses. Clinton lawyers' attempts to discredit Jones and Linda Tripp apparently brought on both the deposing of the president and Ms. Tripp's taping of statements by Ms. Lewinsky.

Impact at home and abroad

In his State of the Union address Tuesday, Mr. Clinton will propose to reform Social Security funding, before the demographic squeeze makes that more difficult in the next century. Presumably both parties in Congress will want that to proceed. But an embattled president will find it more difficult to get Congress to revisit fast track trade powers, funding for the UN and the IMF, and other issues vital for keeping alive the free trade and investment that have contributed so much to the current prosperity of much of the world.

A hands-tied president will also find it more difficult to sway Israeli and Arab leaders to move ahead. And he will have to resist the temptation to make a deep military plunge in Iraq as a diversion from domestic troubles.

Straightforward action

Once again, not just the president but the presidency is at stake in a second-term "gate." There is no better remedy than for President Clinton to tell the truth to the people who have given him good marks for performance, despite reservations about his character. Yes, there may be legal and political risks. But the alternative is a long-stretching calendar marked by the Jones trial and then by presumed GOP willingness to let the uproar slide on toward the fall election.

Hillary Clinton has once again taken charge of her husband's defense. It's to be hoped that she will counsel him to face his constituents, either in the State of the Union address or, more likely, in a separate candid statement. Whatever contrition is merited would help, not harm, the man and his office.

Many foreign politicians and commentators have, once more, professed themselves puzzled over Americans' tendency to hold their leaders to a high standard of personal morality. Perhaps they should listen to American mothers and fathers interviewed in the past few days, who want to be able to assure their children that the nation's leaders honor the Ten Commandments. The famed "bully pulpit" is, after all, very much a pulpit.

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