The patriotic thing - to resign

As President Clinton escaped Washington for the Middle East this weekend, on the very day that the House Judiciary Committee dumped all over him and nudged his impeachment hearing nearer, The New York Times front-paged a picture laden with pathos.

Walking to the helicopter that would carry him to Andrews Air Force base, the president's shoulders were slumped. His arm was tight around his daughter Chelsea's shoulders. She had her hand upon his back. Her head was nestled against his. Mrs Clinton was not in view.

It was a picture that would have pleased the White House image-makers. For it conveyed the anguish of a lonely and isolated man who knows that for the rest of his life he must wrestle with the contempt of millions of his countrymen for his tawdry betrayal of Monica Lewinsky, his family, his oath of office, the courts, and the nation.

The White House strategy now is to engender feelings of pity for the president and to convince the public that a drawn-out impeachment process means more travail than the country can bear. Enough is enough, say the House Democrats. Let the president sign a paper saying he "violated the trust of the American people" and that he "made false statements concerning his reprehensible conduct," give him a censure, and then we can put the unpleasantness behind us and get back to business as usual.

It is an acceptable scenario if we are prepared to discard the democratic principles on which the United States is based, namely that our leaders are subject to the same rules that apply to ordinary citizens. It is reasonable if we reject as inconsequential the rule of law that requires witnesses under oath to tell the truth. (A federal judge I know says that in his court, perjury such as Clinton's would send an ordinary citizen to prison for a year.)

But there are a couple of serious flaws in the scenario that is now being advanced to head off the impeachment process.

The first is the contention that the country cannot stand the travail of a possibly long trial in the Senate. Well, the travail is not of the country's making, and the country doesn't need to feel guilty or embarrassed about it. It is Clinton, whose lack of control, whose lying to cover it up, and whose tepid attempts at apology have been unconvincing, that is responsible for any travail.

There is a second flaw in the argument that Congress should take the initiative in bringing "healing" and "early closure" to this sorry chapter in American history by diluting the impeachment process and giving the president a quick censure instead. It is that the president himself has the ability, right now, to bring closure to any torment the country may be experiencing as a result of his actions. He can resign. And he should.

If he is really on the road to redemption and regeneration, that is the most patriotic and healing action he could take. Sadly, there is no sign of it. Instead, the mood in the White House is one of self-preservation, buttressed by theatrics, evasiveness, the wooing of wavering congressmen, manipulation of the press, and some of the most arcane parsing of the English language I have heard in a long journalistic career.

Would a resignation now create instability? Hardly. The economy is steady. The stock market has climbed back from its summer panic. When President Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment, the country survived. Effectively, the presidency of William Jefferson Clinton is over, whether he physically remains in the White House or not. His standing with Congress is diminished. Even those voters who don't want him impeached say they don't trust him. Abroad, petty tyrants like Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic tweak the White House with impunity. Why would a couple of years of Al Gore be worse? It might be much better. And it would give the American people the opportunity to ponder anew the importance of character in the White House before the next presidential election.

* John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor and currently editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.

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