Facing History

Once more, a president in his second term confronts a crisis - and decisions that will determine his legacy.

Sooner rather than later, President Clinton said last January. Sooner not later he wanted to tell the American people the facts about the Lewinsky affair and its implications of possible perjury and witness tampering.

But then sooner became later as his aides stone-walled, spun, attacked special counsel Starr and his staff, and took comfort in the president's billowing approval ratings.

Now those tactics are wearing thin. The unusually gifted politician in the Oval Office must decide how he is going to deal with the crisis of the coming weeks. And deal with it he must, if he is to have further impact as a statesman shaping America and the world in his final two years in office.

We have urged keeping his January promise, telling the American people the facts now, and seeking their understanding and forgiveness, if necessary. That's the best way to get on to the real business of the next two years. Bill Clinton's role model, John F. Kennedy, showed the way when he told Americans right after the Bay of Pigs fiasco he had made a mistake.

And, speaking of models, any report to his fellow citizens should not repeat the Clintons' word-twisting deflection of the Gennifer Flowers crisis during the 1992 primary race. America needs a farsighted statesman, not a Comeback Kid. It will take a statesman, not a master of political semantics, to guide the US through the end of this century. The nation's moral, demographic, and technological renewal will suffer from delay. As will its global peacekeeping, trade-expanding, and democracy-strengthening leadership.

Yes, there may be legal hazards for Mr. Clinton in any un-spun, un-selfjustifying report to his fellow citizens. But we believe both the Republican majority in Congress and the voters, in their moments of larger vision, would prefer to weigh and and move on, rather than to wrestle endlessly over legal maneuvers and impeachment calculations.

Both politicians and public have only to remember the wasteful history of damaged second terms in this century - from Wilson to Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan - to realize that even divisive debate and slow progress on real issues is preferable to a political civil war that undermines work on Social Security, world trade, education reform, global climate, drugs, and world weapons control.

Tired as Americans may be of hearing cliches about bridges to the 21st century, they know there's much unfinished business to be done before another millennium rolls around on the world's odometer. Mr. Clinton has failed on some issues, notably bureaucratizing health care. But he has begun a legacy on broadening world trade, reshaping his party (and Britain's Labour) to a more realistic view of raising living standards through capital markets, and reforming the welfare state. All need further work. History awaits the president's decision. Sooner rather than later.

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