Has Bill Clinton become a stain on the office of presidency?

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The Independent Culture
YESTERDAY MORNING, wearing a dark suit and a grave expression, President Clinton did what numbers of his predecessors have been called upon to do: he presided over the bleak ceremonial that attends the return of Americans killed in service overseas. Everything was as it should be: the Stars and Stripes at half-mast, the precision of the military rite; the President and the First Lady. As on each such occasion in the past, Mr Clinton's words and demeanour were the very model of what Americans expect from their President.

For a Briton, the uncynical awe in which Americans hold the President has something innocent and archaic about it, something perhaps of the way we once regarded the monarch. Patriotism and national leadership, like religion, are more intact here in the New World. Ordinary people fly the national flag in their gardens. They respect the President and the presidency. Which is why the resignation of Richard Nixon, under threat of impeachment, is widely seen even now not just as comeuppance, but as a national tragedy. It is also why the fall of Bill Clinton - who has never pretended to perfection - would be so hard for America to bear.

Cut now to "that dress". Is it really possible that a president who meets so many of the requirements of his office so admirably could be brought down by something so tawdry, so distasteful as a stain on a young woman's dress? Depending on how Mr Clinton testifies on Monday, it is not only possible, but - especially if the stain turns out to be what it is alleged to be - inevitable.

Many in Washington, and still more in the country at large, refuse even to entertain the possibility. They engage in some of the mental compartmentalising at which Mr Clinton so excels and say that "sex" is different. While the President may have "sinned", they say, he has committed no crime. Lying about sex should not count as perjury. At the further reaches of that view is the flagrantly primitive line that the more demonstrably virile the president, the more respected his leadership.

Of those who would condemn the President, the most timid - so far - are the moralists on the political right, for whom unrepented sin would constitute a bar to the highest office. Such a view might have disqualified many of the more distinguished American presidents, but it has a certain consistency.

More vociferous are the legalists who insist that perjury is perjury, one and indivisible. If the President lied under oath, he should go. It is immaterial whether the lie came in a civil suit (as was the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit), whether it came in evidence that was judged "immaterial" (as was Mr Clinton's in the Paula Jones case), whether the suit was dismissed (as the Paula Jones suit was), whether the subject was sex (as it arguably is). What would happen, ask the legalists, if everyone took the oath so lightly? The whole foundation of the legal system would founder. That way lies impeachment.

Most compelling, however, as Mr Clinton prepares to become the first president to testify before a grand jury in defence of his own conduct, are the constitutionalists. They argue that whatever happens, whether or not a sin was committed, whether or not the law was broken, Mr Clinton has diminished the office of the presidency.

Their contention is that, partly through his own fault, partly not, Mr Clinton bears responsibility before his successors for curtailing the power of the presidency. The rot set in, they say, with the Supreme Court ruling in the Paula Jones case last year, that a sitting president could be sued in a civil case. That one decision, fought by the President's lawyers to no avail, drove the whole legal juggernaut that has compelled the President's testimony in the Monica Lewinsky investigation.

On the way, Mr Clinton's lawyers have fought and lost a succession of legal contests that define the extent of presidential power - downwards. What was hitherto ambiguous, and deliberately left that way by previous presidents, is now marked out.

A president's bodyguards may be required to testify against him if he is suspected of breaking the law. Lawyers employed by the White House rather than the President himself owe their first duty to the taxpayers who technically pay them: their advice to the President may not be confidential. A president may be subject to subpoena (compulsory court summons), and the principle of "executive privilege", which allows a president's conversations with advisers to remain confidential, extends no further than the requirements of national security.

In short, a president who has a state salary, a tied house of majestic proportions, a private plane, a staff of hundreds and the power to blow up the world has no more legal privileges than a private citizen if he is suspected of breaking the law. In some ways, his position is worse, because political considerations limit his options further. If, on Monday, he were to exercise the citizen's right to remain silent rather than incriminate himself (take the Fifth Amendment), the world would know, and he would be universally regarded as guilty.

In the past seven months of the Monica Lewinsky saga, Bill Clinton has tested the limits of the presidency, morally, legally and constitutionally, and Americans have been generous to a fault. They like the man; he is charming, engaging, and "one of them". He retains the aura of office, and they respect that.

Just now, as the hours tick away before Mr Clinton's sworn testimony on Monday, America seems torn between these two views of the presidency, and two views of Bill Clinton: is the President just like them, fallible, forgivable, but subject to the law; or is he above judgement? The courts have decreed that the President is a citizen, no more and no less. Where Mr Clinton is concerned, however, the people so far think otherwise.

While bosses are summarily dismissed for dalliances with office juniors, the President of the United States may entertain a young woman trainee in his office and further her career with impunity. While officers in the armed forces are liable to discharge for adultery, the Commander in Chief may pursue a relationship that was temporarily discouraged by the woman's transfer to - of all places - the Pentagon.

Mr Clinton, it seems, can get away with it. Americans are treating their President as a superior being, a superman, to whom man-made rules do not apply. They respect his handling of the office, and he reciprocates, as he did yesterday, with some fine presidential performances in which America takes pride. As long as the popular mood and the state of the law are out of kilter, Mr Clinton is probably safe. But if public opinion once catches up with the law, as it could do after Monday, Bill Clinton will be vulnerable, if not completely done for.

He may not, in the end, have lied under oath or broken the law. But he has flouted the rules, rules which ordinary Americans are expected to observe, rules he has publicly embraced. Were I an American voter and a Clintonite, it is this personal double standard that would test my loyalty - not the diminishing of the presidency or the toying with the law, but the selfsame question that has dogged Bill Clinton's presidency from the start: character.