Ten Days and Counting

How will the presidency fare after Clinton's Aug. 17 testimony?

Ten days and counting. If you have to ask, "Ten days to what?" you are out of the game. Aug. 17 stands emblazoned in neon lights over America's capital - and, we assume, the nation.

A good friend of mine, who had to leave the country for four days on a urgent financial-bailout mission, returned, sleepless, in time for a scheduled dinner.

His first question was "What's the latest?" There was no doubt about the subject, and I briefed him on the day-to-day developments of the Clinton-Lewinsky saga.

It was when he asked, "How is this going to come out?" that I began to stammer.

For those who think a veteran Washington journalist has some special insight into the unfathomable, let me make a clear breast of it. I haven't the foggiest idea how the Clinton drama will play itself out. As one who clearly saw the Nixon presidency doomed 10 months before it happened, I have no feeling at all about the outcome in this strange situation.

I can now only throw up my hands and mumble along with my colleagues, "You see it depends on the dress, or maybe whether he does a mea culpa, or maybe he will pull some rabbit out of a hat for his closed-circuit grand jury audience. Gosh, don't ask me. How do I know?"

But this I do know - that already Clinton is a seriously weakened president. Congress looks at his stalled legislative program with a jaundiced eye. Foreign leaders must factor a beleaguered president into their calculations. Is it a coincidence that Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Serbia's Milosevic, and Israel's Netanyahu are all displaying new signs of intransigence?

And, if Clinton flexes America's muscle, must we wonder whether this is a diversionary tactic? At the height of President Nixon's Watergate crisis in 1973, his motives were widely suspected when he ordered an alert of American forces in a Middle East confrontation with the Soviets.

This I also know - that the Starr investigation has already weakened not only the president, but the institution of the presidency. Privileges that were until recently part of a tacit accommodation between coequal branches of government - a president's ability to confidential relations with his aides, his lawyers, and his protectors - have been stripped away in a series of court challenges. The mystique that surrounds the presidency may not soon recover from the battering it is getting.

Twenty-five years ago, historian Arthur Schlesinger wrote of "The Imperial Presidency," a presidency grown too unaccountably strong. Fifteen years ago, historian James MacGregor Burns wrote of a weakened presidency that had lost "The Power to Lead."

How will a future historian write of a presidency that, amid peace, prosperity, and personal popularity, found itself enmeshed in a tawdry sex scandal?

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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