For Clinton, sorry seems to be the hardest word of all

In just four minutes on Monday evening, Mr Clinton revealed the essence of his presidency
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IF DEMOCRATIC nations get the governments they deserve, then leaders get the scandals they deserve. A quarter of a century ago, Richard Nixon was devoured by Watergate, the dark, paranoid tale of a man brought down by his subversion of a system that he was convinced was rigged against him. And now Bill Clinton is trapped in a web of his own deceits, fighting to save a career cast into jeopardy by his own personal demons.

Sins of the flesh, of course, are very different from sins of state. Watergate is on a far higher plane of wickedness than this tawdry little affair. But just as Watergate defines Nixon, so will the 42nd president of the United States be for ever defined by Monicagate, Zippergate, Stained Dress-gate or whatever label history chooses to bestow upon his current misadventures.

In just four minutes on Monday evening, Mr Clinton revealed the essence of his presidency and himself. Every persona was there in that remarkable television appearance: Clinton the soulfully sincere, Clinton the seducer and charmer begging once more for forgiveness, and Slick Willie the lawyer, the splitter of hairs of definition, turning the improper into the "inappropriate", and wrapping the untruth in the mantle of the "legally accurate". And yet, for all the humiliation of the moment, I could not feel sorry for him.

Of course it is vilely demeaning to have the most squalid details of your private life picked over in the newspapers, on the late night shows and - with greater or lesser embarrassment - over family dinner-tables across the country. A powerful case, moreover, can be made that the office of special prosecutor has got out of hand, that the Republican revenge for the persecutions of Iran-Contra has turned into the absurdity of a rolling, real-time investigation into which every White House peccadillo is sucked into the mill of Kenneth Starr almost as soon as it happens, imposing constraints and distractions upon the President, not to mention bankrupting legal fees on many of his aides, whose only error has been to be in the wrong room at the wrong time. Ultimately, though, this mess has been entirely of Mr Clinton's making. Before his presidency, during the campaign and even after his election, sexual allegations have dogged him. Yet he has not learnt, or could not learn. Were the sport football rather than politics, after so many yellow cards even as beguiling and gifted a player as Bill Clinton would long since have been shown red.

But today's referee is public opinion, and the considered verdict on whether he completes his term may yet be a while in coming. We do not know whether the President, even in more than six hours of questioning, has told the whole truth. We do not know whether Mr Starr will continue the chase, or what he will report to Congress in the coming weeks. Nor, most important, do we know whether ordinary Americans will be as forgiving of Clinton the admitted transgressor, as of Mr Clinton the suspected one. For the moment they seem to be; his popularity has fallen, but a majority seem to believe that matters should be laid to rest. But make no mistake, if that approval rating tumbles to Nixonesque levels, and the public wants to be rid of him, Mr Clinton will be out. The impeachment statute talks of "high crimes and misdemeanours." Their exact definition depends entirely on the politics of the hour.

These last three weeks I happen to have been in the US on holiday, seeing old friends and my in-law family, in Washington but mostly in the Amerique profonde of the Midwest, where the "Lewinsky affair" (curiously, it is invariably referred to as an "affair" or a "matter", never as a scandal) is a surreal shadow-play being acted out in a faraway capital. The very mention of it makes good folk cringe. It is a source of national embarrassment that they prefer not to talk about with foreigners, not even foreigners who are part of the family.

Whether Republican or Democrat, they feel overwhelmingly that the system is out of control - that this is something that should not have to be settled by the law, and its great impedimenta of special prosecutors, grand juries and possible impeachment. There are few forgiving words for Bill Clinton, but not many for Ken Starr either. Middle America just wishes the whole sordid business would go away; better still that it had never happened in the first place. However the saga ends, you sense that it will not long be remembered.

But, it will be objected, what about the presidency? Is not Mr Clinton's real offence that he has irreparably cheapened and damaged his country's highest office, reducing its business to a soap opera, and opening its workings to a scrutiny no normal man would wish upon his worst enemy, and one which arguably will hamper the ability of future incumbents to do their job with a minimum of the required discretion ? But these fears are surely excessive.

Yes, of course this presidency has been weakened, especially in its critically important "bully-pulpit" aspect. Denied by the constitution the domestic power that a British, French or German leader would take for granted, an American president must lead largely by example. In a media-driven age that lives by creating instant heroes only to destroy them, that task was already hard. After Monday evening's admissions, the notion of Bill Clinton waxing forth on self-discipline, abstemiousness and family values is simply ludicrous. "Confess and be forgiven" is America's modern mantra. But that is also an invitation to shameless hypocrisy on the part of its public figures. Perhaps in future fewer politicians will dare preach what they do not practise. But don't bank on it.

For the rest, though, I doubt the fall-out will be very great. Post-Monica, it is fashionable to predict the demise of American foreign policy. In fact, Mr Clinton was a weak foreign policy president long before Miss Lewinsky showed up as a White House intern. The reasons for that weakness were not his long-known sexual escapades, or Whitewater, or the the endless subsequent harrying by Mr Starr - but his own habits of procrastination and indecisiveness, and the fact that the Republicans had a majority in Congress. These limitations have not changed. Conversely, though, if a really big foreign crisis blew up, there is no reason to suppose that Congress would deny Mr Clinton the bipartisan support it would give a president who did not stray from the marital bed. Finally, with or without Monica, the iron law of the electoral calendar would have made him a lame duck president for the last part of his second term.

Nor need would-be presidents worry unduly. For one thing, over-reaction usually breeds counter-reaction, and scandal fatigue may work in his successors' favour. The institution still commands a respect verging on veneration. For proof, look no further than the outrage at the way it has been dragged through the mud by the 42nd holder of the office. But Bill Clinton has brought the disaster upon his own head. Had he behaved with a modicum of common sense and personal restraint, his private life would have remained private. As for the voters, they knew that the then Governor of Arkansas had his foibles when they elected him in 1992, and then again in 1996. Now they've seen where these foibles have led, there will be no taking of such chances upon the next incumbent.

So we come back to where we started. Ad nauseam, the US press has been debating what this affair "is about". Is it about sex, or lying under oath, or declining standards in journalism or public life, or plain old prurience? The answer is: all of the above. More than anything, however, it's about Bill Clinton. A Bill Clinton who may yet escape the red card.