From Now to 2000

Following the constantly rediscovered idea that honesty is the best policy, let us be frank about America and its leader:

* Neither the US nor the world can afford to wallow in indecision and recrimination for the remaining two years of the presidential term. Major issues like Social Security and Medicare funding reform, improved education standards, and expanded trade should be tackled in years of budget surplus, not later.

* Those years of surplus must be protected (or they will revert to deficit) by dealing effectively with the global financial and nuke-chem-bio weapons crises.

* President Clinton would best serve these aims and his own survival by (1) calling off his spin-lawyers, (2) showing by honesty of action rather than oft-repeated words of contrition that he is really a changed person, and (3) quietly, not manipulatively, pursuing priorities on the nation's agenda. Only thus can he prove himself worthy of what a majority of Americans say they want: getting past this blot on the presidency.

* In addition to eyeing polls about presidential job rating and morality rating, voters also ought to ponder the matter of national morality rating.

Americans tend to burnish the past in a glow of nostalgia. But even allowing for such rosiness, this idealistic nation has slipped in recent decades. It has lowered its standards on marital and parental fidelity, gambling, drug use, and, yes, honesty.

We mention gambling in the above list of lapses because, at base, that is what Mr. Clinton did in the Lewinsky case. He gambled with his own future, that of his family, and indeed that of the nation.

In two centuries as a free people, Americans have sporadically indulged in political and business chicanery, moral turpitude, games of chance, intoxicants, and euphemism-coated hypo-crisy. "Inappropriate" behavior and "legally correct" lies are but the latest examples of the latter. But, even when such lapses occurred, Americans generally believed in, and aspired to, high standards.

Recent years, though, have seen too much complacent acceptance that moral and ethical decline is behavior that the richest, most powerful society can afford to indulge in.

It can't.

That's why we again call on the Republican and Democratic leaders of Congress to discuss - now and after November's election - which great national priorities they ought to set to work on. Debate those, yes. Vigorously, yes. But get on with it. Lead the nation. And challenge the president to join in that leadership - having to prove his fitness to serve two more years.

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