Clinton and Trust

From Kauai to Capitol Hill, Americans are debating the technicalities of perjury. But a broader question may prove more central to the survival of the Clinton presidency - that of public trust.

Abraham Lincoln, no stranger to this subject, once noted that the public's trust is the linchpin of a leader's ability to get things done.

In this regard, more important than hedging the truth before Paula Jones's lawyers may be the fact that Bill Clinton lied - by the general definition, if not his own - to the American people. Moreover, what he lied about was conduct so at odds with standards expected of a president that many feel he should no longer hold the office.

Has his public penitence repaired that breach of faith? Does he, like King David in Psalm 51, after his outrageous actions with Bathsheba were discovered, possess "a broken and a contrite heart"?

Those questions aren't easily answered. But members of Congress, as they weigh the charges against the president, have to keep an ear to the public's answers. That doesn't mean an abdication of their consciences. It's simply a recognition that this president is on trial before both the Congress and the people.

The president can help this process by stating his case to the nation free of the legalisms that still shadow his truthfulness. Perhaps the House Judiciary Committee, charged with deciding whether his acts were impeachable, will provide the forum. For their trust to be regained, the people need to see clear acts of reform.

What impact is the continuing flow of data from Kenneth Starr's investigation having on the people's judgment? The videotaped grand jury testimony showed Mr. Clinton sidestepping questions and taking refuge in tortured definitions. But he also maintained a relative calm - no storming around, as pre-broadcast reports of the testimony forecast

The Judiciary Committee, too, is subject to public scrutiny. Flaring tempers and partisanship on that panel are disturbing. Republicans must be willing to listen to Democrats' concerns and compromise on what's released (there are crates more of the Starr material). Democratic members must recognize they're working under a rule voted by the full House (including most Democrats) that allows for public disclosure of almost all of it.

The process will go forward in accord with the Constitution. The president has said he won't resign - though that could change if his own party loses faith in his leadership. The American people - and people everywhere - will continue to learn more about this president. And they'll have to answer this question: Has he retained enough of our trust to lead? The president can help answer that.

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