In which this columnist (gasp) praises Mr. Clinton

At year's end I think I owe an accounting of my relationship with readers as reflected in my mail. For a long while, during the probe into Whitewater, the letters ran about 50/50 on the president and his personal conduct.

With the Lewinsky disclosure and up through the impeachment vote, the exceedingly heavy mail revealed readers more than 2 to 1 against Mr. Clinton. But for months now, mail on the president has greatly ebbed. Even my columns, which have chided the president for trying to downplay his impeachment, haven't sparked much of a negative response.

Indeed, I have come to conclude that even the president's to-the-bitter-end defenders have given up the fight and are trying to turn the page.

Even those who are unhappy with me over my continued criticism of Clinton's conduct tend to start out with a preamble like this: "President Clinton's morals have been reprehensible and he rightly deserves condemnation in that regard." (This note came from a man in Oakhurst, Calif.)

If there is any current anger among readers it is directed at my unwillingness, as they see it and as it is often put, "to say anything good about this president." The Oakhurst respondent makes that complaint. So does a woman from Tampa, Fla., who writes: "I may be brushed off as only one 'irate subscriber' but believe me I am not alone."

Well, maybe she's not alone. But, again, my mail says that Americans generally are disappointed with this president and clearly are among the nearly 70 percent of the public that pollsters now tell us are indicating they "disapprove" of the president's personal conduct.

But right here and now - as the Christmas spirit is still all around - I'm going to surprise my critics and say some nice things about Bill Clinton: This president is truly spunky. His ability to rekindle his own morale and seek to rise out of the ashes of defeat has once again been in remarkable display. Most other presidents would have been beaten down by the year after year of probes and the revelations about his extramarital relations. I think that another president might well have resigned under the Lewinsky barrage. But Clinton never departed, even slightly, from his firm "no" to questions about whether he would consider resigning.

But - much more than just deciding to stay on in what was being widely seen as a failed presidency - Clinton has launched a determined effort to somehow rescue his administration.

Sure, he's eying history's verdict as he tirelessly seeks to make achievement points. But he keeps at it, day in and day out.

Besides being damaged by impeachment, Clinton also is impaired by being a "lame duck," a president who has lost much influence simply because he soon will be out of office. But, again, he plugs ahead.

Also, whenever Clinton speaks, he puts all of these current presidential candidates to shame in one way: How this president can explain the most complicated of issues!

You may think Clinton has disgraced his presidency but you have to concede this: He is smart, smart, smart.

When eminent historians James McGregor Burns and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., visited reporters at successive Monitor breakfasts recently, they both expressed disappointment in what they saw as Clinton's failure to reach a bright potential.

But they both thought he might yet upgrade his presidency, at least some, by pushing along the peace process in Ireland and the Mideast.

Oh, yes, this president has continued to show talents that are uniquely his. He is a superb - and indefatigable - campaigner. Indeed, he always seems to be on the campaign trail and running for something. He is, of course, running to improve his place in history. And have we ever had a better presider over ceremonies? President Reagan was said to be the best. But I'd pick Clinton. And has there ever been a better attendant at national disasters?

Clinton wins praise from Americans of both parties as he travels far and wide to comfort those in grief.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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