Vote to End the National Tragedy

Now that President Clinton has testified before the grand jury and made a public statement about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, polls continue to indicate that Americans want to end this national tragedy - a majority simply wants the matter dropped

It can be dropped. Rarely has a US election presented an opportunity for citizens to intervene decisively to change the course of a national debate. The 1998 congressional elections are such an opportunity. In deciding the control of the Republican-dominated House of Representatives, voters can end the threat of impeachment, close the door on the Kenneth Starr proceedings, amend the Independent Counsel Act to assure its original intention of investigating the serious criminal abuse of public power, and restore the constitutional stability of the presidency. Or they can prolong the national agony until the millennium.

The Whitewater investigation lost any pretense of judicious objectivity when Robert Fiske, a distinguished former US prosecutor appointed by President Reagan, was displaced as special prosecutor - under pressure from powerful Republican congressional leaders - by Mr. Starr, who understood and was prepared to carry out the political war that Whitewater was intended to declare. The hope of the political godfathers of Starr's appointment was not to impeach the president, but to throw the White House off balance, undermine the president's power, and keep the spotlight off the decisions in the backrooms of Congress.

Whitewater was a political war of attrition. As often happens in warfare, a surprise feint, unplanned and unexpected by the generals gathers momentum, finds weakness in the opposing lines and opens new opportunities for victory. The Paula Jones case was such an attack. Its consequences probably surprised the Republican leadership as much as Mr. Clinton.

This was not a simple tort action. It had to be responded to for what it was - a brilliant, belligerent attack by activists who never concealed their identity or agenda. Under no circumstances should Clinton have agreed to testify under oath in a civil proceeding where his personal life was a legitimate subject of scrutiny, and where his answers could subject him, unfairly or not, to charges of perjury.

In his voluntary deposition in the Jones case, the president was asked about his relationship to Ms. Lewinsky. At this point, the president lost control of the battlefield. Those who might have protected him abandoned him. Attorney General Janet Reno opened the gates to the citadel by extending Starr's jurisdiction to the Lewinsky episode. And Lewinsky, a consenting adult participant in her relationship with Clinton, might have thought about something more than herself - her country's pride, for instance - and pleaded the Fifth Amendment before the grand jury. She could have explained publicly that the investigation was a political assault on the presidency as well as unwarranted intrusion in her public life.

Nevertheless, the ultimate responsibility for his personal conduct and the defense of his presidency was and remains Clinton's. One central fact must dominate his strategy: Starr can't indict the president; only the House can do that. The president in his speech to the nation made the point that his answers in the Jones deposition "were legally accurate." To have said otherwise would have been a confession of perjury.

The devastating impact of Starr's coming detailed report to Congress is being greatly underestimated in the wake of the president's speech. But when that happens, the crisis will be back where it began - a political and constitutional confrontation. Since nothing proved or even alleged comes close to the "high crimes and misdemeanors" in Watergate, Republican leaders will probably authorize extended hearings. Immobilized in the spotlight, they'll strip him of power without taking away his office.

Because of the intense media attention, Americans know as much about Whitewater and the Lewinsky matter as does Congress. The people can end the impeachment threat. The politicians won't. Our vote in November will reflect an important judgment. Candidates will be very hesitant to raise the issue because too much can happen before November that is unpredictable - such as the publication of the Starr report

But the incontrovertible truth is that we can end the painful spectacle and restore constitutional stability by changing control of the House. Perhaps then our elected officials will be able to act on the nation's true agenda.

* William J. vanden Heuvel, an international lawyer and investment banker, is former special assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and former US Ambassador to the United Nations.

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