A Turning Point for Clinton?

Why not just look away from the Clinton scandals? Why not just move on, as the president and those around him are urging?

Two persuasive voices have joined in arguing that President Clinton committed reprehensible public acts for which he must be held responsible. Both Democratic Sen. Joseph L. Lieberman of Connecticut and Republican William J. Bennett have pounded the president with their condemnation of his wrongdoing.

Together these highly respected men, of different parties, have become participants in what may later be regarded as the "turning point" in the Clinton saga, the moment when it became clear that the president could not possibly prevail in his plea, uttered again and again and recently in Russia, that he be allowed to put the Monica Lewinsky matter behind him and "go about my business of running the country."

Mr. Lieberman, a longtime ally of Mr. Clinton, speaking forcefully on the Senate floor Thursday, criticized Clinton's behavior with words such as these: "disgraceful," "immoral," and "deserving of public rebuke and accountability."

"Such behavior," the senator said, "is not just inappropriate, it is immoral."

Then Lieberman added these words: "And it is harmful, for it sends a message of what is acceptable behavior to the larger American family - particularly to our children - which is as influential as the negative messages communicated by the entertainment culture."

Immediately after Lieberman sat down, two other highly regarded Democratic senators - Daniel Moynihan of New York and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska - endorsed Lieberman's rebuke of the president. The unhappiness of many high-level Democrats with Clinton's behavior had been seething beneath the surface. On Thursday it broke into the open.

After that, it seems it will be most difficult for the president to persuade the nation's leaders, and the public, that they should look away from "Lewinskygate."

At the same time, Mr. Bennett, one-time secretary of Education and the much-acclaimed author of "The Book of Virtues," has weighed in with a new book, "The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals." It almost immediately is being read by thoughtful people all over the country. Within days after its publication this summer, the book soared to near the top of The New York Times bestseller list, and was already into its fourth printing.

So it is that the Bennett book is bound to have a big impact among many Americans who regard him as the arbiter of virtue and morals in government. Bennett, in his book, scolds the public for being slow to hold Clinton accountable but provides this explanation:

"Bill Clinton and his supporters have skillfully deflected criticism by changing the subject."

Bennett writes that Americans simply need to be awakened to the fact that Clinton and his defenders "represent an assault on American ideals." That's what his book is all about. It could have been entitled "Wake Up America."

Lieberman's words will, of course, have more visible impact than Bennett's. They are reminiscent of the angry observation of Sen. Barry Goldwater in the spring of 1973 about President Nixon's role in the emerging scandal of Watergate.

"The Watergate. The Watergate," Goldwater said in a Monitor interview. "It's beginning to be like Teapot Dome. I mean, there's a smell to it. Let's get rid of that smell."

HISTORIANS now tell us that when "Mr. Republican" spoke up in that way, it was the beginning of the end for Goldwater's old friend, Richard Nixon.

That was indeed a "turning point" event. Lieberman's rebuke of Clinton may have set off that same decline for the president.

And Bennett's words may well help to persuade the public that it is time to abandon a disgraced leader.

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