US rocked, not sunk, by scandal

Views differ on price American democracy will pay for the Clintonimbroglio.

Some speak of constitutional crises and political apocalypse; others merely ask: "So what?" When the historic impeachment trial of President Clinton is over, what will have been the cost of this entire episode to America?

To be sure, Washington's leadership elite has undergone a series of jolts as a result of the events set in motion by the Clinton scandal. Few major players have survived untarnished.

"This has damaged everyone who has touched it," says Alan Brinkley, a historian at Columbia University in New York. "I don't think anyone has profited." Indeed, the reputations of the president, the independent counsel Kenneth Starr, and congressional leaders have all suffered.

Partisanship has escalated, with Senate Republicans expected at press time Wednesday to prevail in largely party-line votes to extend the trial and depose witnesses.

As in Greek tragedy, the political price is likely to be "another generation of recriminations and paybacks," says Mr. Brinkley.

Outside the Washington Beltway, however, the costs of the scandal and subsequent impeachment have been more elusive. Indeed, much of America is going about its business as if nothing had happened - a sign, some observers say, of the resilience and vigor of the nation's political institutions. Yet others voice concern that deepening public cynicism about politics, in the long run, is likely to exact a heavy price.

What is astonishing to many foreign US-watchers, as they see the future of the most powerful man in the world hang in the balance, is the lack of political upheaval by the grass roots. Apart from a few peaceful rallies outside the Capitol and a handful of radio talk-show callers warning of revolution, there has been virtually no mention of protest or political unrest.

The United States is one of the few countries in the world that can withstand such a prolonged period of political infighting and uncertainty, observers say. "It's the beauty of living in America," says Harry Wilson, a public affairs specialist at Roanoke College in Salem, Va. "The only threats that are made are: 'We'll get you in the next election.' "

Even if Mr. Clinton were convicted by the Senate and removed from office, Mr. Wilson says, "it wouldn't be a revolution or even a coup d'tat. It would be Al Gore."

Oblivious economy

The US economy, meanwhile, is humming along. Wall Street, after taking stock of the events, has if anything responded positively. "As impeachment looked more serious, the market was regularly going to new heights," says Richard Sylla, an economist and historian at the New York University business school.

Indeed, the robustness of the economy appears to grow with Clinton's travails, Professor Sylla says. With Clinton distracted, the theory goes, the right people are in charge. "Washington is a big town and there is another fellow there named [Alan] Greenspan," says Sylla. Federal Reserve Chairman Greenspan and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin are "great heroes of Wall Street," he says.

Similarly, US political institutions and bureaucracies - although characteristically slow - are continuing to function. Ambitious policy and legislative agendas such as Social Security reform have had setbacks, although these would be expected under any circumstances. But government workers are on the job, and Washington hasn't in any sense been shut down by impeachment.

This stability in the face of a jarring test, some analysts contend, says more about enduring strengths than about newfound weaknesses in the American democratic system. "After the dust settles, this will be seen as a refreshment of our institutions," predicts Sylla. "It was good that we went through it and didn't try to sweep it under the rug."

Rampant cynicism?

Still, few believe the country will escape completely from the year-long presidential tangle.

Most important, they warn of a public now so cynical about government officials that the standards for credibility are at rock bottom. "This has diminished the credibility of politicians generally," says Michael Kazin, a political historian at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

Clinton's public lies and adultery have hastened what some scholars call the "diminution" of the US presidency - a trend that began at the end of the cold war.

Because the president is the emblem of government, more so than are leaders in other Western democracies, this diminution has led to widespread public feeling that government is increasingly irrelevant to people's lives, scholars suggest.

Americans, for example, appear to be shrugging their shoulders rather than demanding that their leaders be honest. A sizable majority gives Clinton high approval ratings, despite the fact that most also believe he lied under oath. "There is a disconnect here," says Wilson. "We may now be at the point where one thing [lying] is not related to the other [doing a good job as president]," says Wilson.

Offering a bit of black humor, Wilson suggests that 1988 Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart "should consider a comeback." "Everything that forced [Hart] to withdraw - having an affair and misleading people about it - those things now seem to be irrelevant," he says.

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