Nation Faces Wrenching Choice
Congress will have to balance stability in office vs. truthfulness in judging Clinton.
WASHINGTON — Independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report about possibly impeachable offenses by President Clinton now confronts Congress - indeed, the whole nation - with its most difficult and fateful political choice in a generation.
The report itself provides no easy answers, according to a wide array of lawmakers, experts, and average citizens. Its evidence on some points, such as whether Mr. Clinton lied under oath, is compelling. Evidence on other allegations, such as witness tampering and abuse of power, is perhaps less convincing.
Thus the fate of the most powerful man in the world now may depend on what millions of Americans think about an uncharted margin where law, politics, public acts, and private sins collide.
One thought to keep in mind, say some scholars, is that punishing the president for his misdeeds is not the purpose of the constitutional machinery that is now grinding into motion.
Rather, the protection of the nation's interests is what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they designed the impeachment process. And weighing the US interest in executive stability versus its need for truthful leadership should not be a quick and easy matter, some say.
"The first thing we need right now is not a rush to judgment, but thoughtful consideration," says Michael Birkner, a specialist in the history of political scandal at Gettysburg College.
Early reaction from the Friday public release of Mr. Starr's voluminous report to Congress indicated that Clinton is in realistic danger of becoming only the second US chief executive to have ever been forced from office.
The report's relentless march of tawdry detail about Clinton's relationship with ex-White House intern Monica Lewinsky awed some of the president's defenders into silence. While the narrative of their encounters largely stems from only Ms. Lewinsky's testimony, the extent of such corroborating evidence as phone logs made many in Washington believe Starr's version of the Lewinsky-Clinton relationship.
Many Democrats have distanced themselves from the president, but are looking for a way to keep him in office. Some Republicans said that the president's moral turpitude alone makes him unfit to serve. Lawmakers in the middle were similarly appalled by Clinton's actions - but were also looking for reasons to avoid an impeachment vote they felt could damage faith in the nation's governing processes.
Some members of this swing group said they were irritated by what they see as an overly aggressive, nit-picking defense now being mounted by Clinton's lawyers. They claimed that questioning Starr's motives, at this point, only hurts the president's chances of remaining in office.
Key Republicans bristled, too. "We're at the point where the president should say: 'You got me. Now how do we get through this,' " said Senate majority leader Trent Lott on Fox News Sunday. Democrats such as John Dingell of Michigan urge a "speedy" resolution to the affair, wrapping it up by the time the newly elected Congress meets.
That would leave little time for hearings, though, and might be more applicable to a vote of censure - a concept gaining ground with the public, polls show.
Still, the White House's scathing rebuttals, which have described the Starr report as a "hit-and-run smear campaign," may be aimed at shaping public perception. The speed of the modern news cycle, and the extent of today's polls, mean that public opinion will play a larger role in Clinton's fate than it did even in the case of Richard Nixon.
"This will be decided on politics based on discernable public will," says Stephen Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University.
It could take weeks for public opinion to fully absorb the details of the Starr report. Initial polls showed some deterioration in the president's position. His job approval ratings are still strong, at 56 percent positive in a recent ABC poll, and 62 percent positive in a recent CNN/Gallup poll.
But 49 percent of respondents in the ABC survey said that Starr has made a strong case for impeachment. A Newsweek poll indicated that only 39 percent of Americans thought Clinton was being sincere when he emotionally admitted that he had "sinned" at a prayer breakfast with religious leaders on Friday.
At Whitlow's, an Arlington, Va., diner graced by an oversized photo of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the great national conversation on Clinton's misdeeds was already in full swing over the weekend. "If you don't hold him accountable, how do you uphold an oath?" said Julie Desmond, a local high school teacher.
"He should not be impeached about lying about an affair," countered Tim McHenry, a northern Virginia business consultant.
These responses perhaps summarize the central issue in the Lewinsky matter: does perjury by a president about a sexual matter that was not related to official duties reveal a character so damaged he cannot be trusted with the nation's business?
"You and I have to tell the truth," says Bill Phillips, a longtime Republican operative who is now vice chancellor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. "We hold the presidency at a high level, and we expect the truth."
Congress begins grappling with this and other questions, such as allegations of obstruction of justice, this week. The first step: House approval of rules that will govern the Judiciary Committee's preliminary inquest.
KEY CHARGES IN STARR'S REPORT
1. President Clinton lied under oath in the Paula Jones sexual-harassment case about his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. He later lied under oath to the grand jury in August about his sexual relationship with Ms. Lewinsky.
2. He lied under oath during the Jones deposition when he stated he could not recall being alone with Lewinsky.
3. Clinton lied about conversations he had with Lewinsky about her involvement in the Jones case.
4. He lied under oath in describing his conversation with Vernon Jordan about Lewinsky's testifying in the Jones case.
Obstruction of Justice
1. Clinton tried to obstruct justice by engaging "in a pattern of activity to conceal evidence."
2. Clinton came to an understanding with Lewinsky that they would lie about their relationship.
Abuse of Presidential Power
1. Clinton committed acts that were "inconsistent with the president's constitutional duty to faithfully execute the laws."
WHITE HOUSE REBUTTAL
1. The president denied he had sex with Lewinsky according to the definition provided by Jones's attorney. He was not asked about whether he engaged in activities outside that definition, so his testimony was accurate and truthful.
2. The president never said he was not alone with Lewinsky. He acknowledged that he met with her on as many as five occasions while she worked at the White House, and Jones's lawyers didn't ask him to describe the "nature of any physical contact" that may have occurred on those occasions.
3. Clinton never advised her to testify falsely.
4. The president never tried to get Lewinsky a job after she left the White House in order to influence her testimony in the Jones case. Nor did he instruct anyone to hire her, or even indicate that he very much wanted it to happen.
Obstruction of Justice
1. Lewinsky returned the president's gifts on her own, summoning Clinton secretary Betty Currie to pick them up.
2. The report does not deal directly with what Clinton and Lewinsky may have discussed about what they would say about the relationship.
Abuse of Presidential Power
1. Clinton's assertions of executive and legal privilege were made as a last resort to protect the constitutional and institutional interests of the presidency.
NOTE TO READERS
The Christian Science Monitor chose not to publish the text of the Starr report or extensive excerpts given the sexually explicit nature of its contents. We will provide comprehensive coverage on the issues the report raises in our news columns.