President's Disgrace

One man's frailty needn't erode values of nation

The incumbent president of the United States has now been established as a womanizer, an adulterer.

And even if his grand jury testimony Aug. 17 does not result in his prosecution as an obstructer of justice, it nevertheless is clear that he is one of the slipperiest masters of prevarication ever to sit in the White House.

He denied that he had an affair with Gennifer Flowers, but it turns out he did.

He denied that he attempted to evade the draft, but it turns out he did.

He denied that he smoked marijuana, but it turns out he did - in England and he "never inhaled."

He denied that he had a sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, but it turns out he did.

His months-long dissembling about that relationship has caused anguish for his family, for the hundreds of White House staffers who trusted him, and for the country at large.

Should he be removed from office? Yes.

Any university president, or president of a large corporation, or elected official, with such a questionable record of probity would be ousted. Setting aside the legalities or illegalities, Mr. Clinton through the reckless pursuit of his frailties has diminished the presidency, lost his claim to demonstrate moral leadership, and exhibited a contempt for the American people.

Will he be forced to step down? That depends on the mood of the American public after it has digested his admissions in court and his post-testimony apologia.

The polls suggest that Americans are weary of this sad and sordid saga. They may be reluctant to witness the further humiliation of an impeachment process.

For the Republican Party, which would have to drive such a campaign, it might be more productive to let a discredited president linger in office than install Vice President Al Gore.

But however it turns out for Clinton, his legacy is a shattered presidency, and a trail of damage and injury to others.

There is the humiliation of Mrs. Clinton, who despite her sometimes steely political drive, and a ridiculous suggestion that her husband's woes stemmed from foes of Arkansas, surely now deserves some sympathy for the longstanding suffering her husband has caused her.

There is their daughter, Chelsea, who must deal with the trauma of this family scandal, splashed as it is across every newspaper, and dominating the television screens.

There is Monica Lewinsky, who must overcome the image of bubble-headed courtesan, and rebuild her life.

There are the White House loyalists who have stood by their president and now must handle their disillusionment.

Some of them on the periphery of the scandal owe tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills that could have been avoided had their president come forth with the truth seven months ago.

Consider too the travails of those who stood up to the White House and as a result were the objects of vituperation and smears.

Not the least among them was Kenneth Starr, the independent prosecutor.

Then there are the ordinary people of America.

In the short term they face an emasculated presidency ineffective at home and without courage abroad. Clinton will have little heft with Congress, and no stomach for confrontation with Saddam Hussein.

In a time of moral decay, Americans face some self-searching about the significance of their president's misdeeds.

There have been too many man-on-the-street interviews suggesting that "anything goes" in this sexually permissive era and that Clinton has been unfairly persecuted for revelations about his faithless private life.

It would be unfortunate if the new generation treated their discredited president as a moral icon rather than a goad to a moral renaissance.

POLLS show that "anything goes" is not the predominant American attitude toward sex and marriage. A recent Gallup poll found 79 percent of Americans declaring that extramarital relations are always wrong. Even among Americans who confessed to such extramarital affairs, 90 percent of them believed sex outside marriage was wrong.

The lessons that Americans take away from this tragedy are important.

The downfall or disgrace of a president cannot be easily dismissed from memory. But the frailty of one man need not erode the confidence and values of an entire nation.

America is a country based on the rule of law, is steeped in an overriding commitment to freedom, and has a long tradition of decency. These qualities and beliefs endure even though one president has failed to demonstrate the nobility and integrity that his office requires.

* John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor.

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