Peril of Declining Values And President as Cipher

The presidency of William Jefferson Clinton is effectively at an end. No matter whether he remains in the White House or goes, his capacity to negotiate meaningfully with Congress, his ability to represent the United States forcefully with foreign leaders, and - most important - the possibility that he can regain his believability with the American people, have been eroded to the point where he is henceforth a cipher.

The most gallant and healing gesture he could now offer to the country he has misled and betrayed is to resign and begin a private life of expiation and regeneration. Scandal-enmeshed political figures in the US and other nations have taken this course and found peace. This would spare the country from an anguishing debate over whether Mr. Clinton should be impeached.

One of the most convincing arguments for resignation is that the retention of a politically weakened president in the White House, distracted and obsessed by his campaign to retain office, puts the nation in potential peril from mischief-makers abroad.

Last week, a 19-year-old sailor on a Russian nuclear submarine ran amok, machine-gunned to death eight crewmen, and barricaded himself in the vessel's torpedo section before himself being killed. As the vessel was in port, it purportedly carried only conventional weapons and no nuclear missiles.

So far as I can judge, the story made it to no front page of any major American newspaper, largely because those front pages were dominated by the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. But what if the vessel had been at sea, primed with nuclear missiles, and some scenario had unfolded, like a Tom Clancy novel, threatening to the US? This would not be the ideal time for a weakened and depressed president to deal with it.

Meanwhile, other foreign policy problems loom larger and remain unattended as the embattled White House turns inward.

Who will be next to test American resolve in its time of weakness? North Korea, which seems to be constructing a nuclear missile system after promising the Clinton administration to dismantle it? Saddam Hussein, who is thwarting United Nations and American inspections of his deadly weapons installations after having promised to cooperate with them? The Serbs, who have dismissed American warnings as bluster and are confidently pursuing their blitzkrieg in Kosovo?

In addition to all of this, Clinton is supposed to be shoring up a Russian leader whose future seems as shaky as his own, and helping bring order to a jittery global economy. No wonder that foreign leaders who look to the US for leadership are edgy.

Despite all this, the resignation prospects appear dim. Rather, the Clintons and their lawyers are hunkering down and initiating the smear campaign against their critics that is their standard defense when cornered.

If there are to be hearings on impeachment, they must be conducted as expeditiously as can be done without compromising justice. This is a time for the politicians involved to rise to statesmanship; to be clinically nonpartisan; and to make principle the cornerstone of their deliberations.

The American people need to think through the ambivalence that so far has clouded their reaction to the Clinton scandal. A survey conducted by The Washington Post in collaboration with Harvard University and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, and analyzed by writers Richard Morin and David Broder, says Clinton has confronted the country with a sample of what 3 out of 4 of his constituents see as a dangerous decline in the values on display in the national culture. They link the White House escapade to their broader worries about the lack of respect for tradition and authority, to the coarse content of the movies, television, and music, to personal dishonesty and sexual promiscuity.

Yet The Washington Post poll, and public opinion polls since the release of the Starr report, reveal a contradiction between condemnation of the president's behavior with Monica Lewinsky as "inexcusable" and "deplorable," and a dismissal of it as not bearing upon his performance as president.

It is this conviction that morality and ethics can somehow be compartmentalized from presidential performance that permitted Clinton to be twice elected by voters who were well aware of his character deficiencies.

If the Clinton scandal provides an opportunity to dismiss this muddled thesis, and begin cleansing our society of some of the moral maladies that beset it, then some good may yet come of it.

* John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor.

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