Leading Article: Resignation could save Clinton's and a nation's honour

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PRESIDENT CLINTON said this week that he had spoken to a young boy who told him: "I want to grow up to be President and I want to be a President like you." He himself was once the young boy who spoke to a President and told him something like that, a moment captured on a famous snatch of black-and-white cine film. That President was John Kennedy, and Mr Clinton did indeed grow up to be a President like him. Kennedy was also sexually incontinent and his personal ethics suspect. But the rules of the game have changed since then. In those days, presidents did have private lives. Today, despite Mr Clinton's vain assertion last month, there are limits to that privacy. In the 1960s, journalists were deferential towards the office of the presidency in a way which seems unimaginable today. There were advantages to this discretion: it made it much easier to judge a political leader by his public words and actions rather than by his private life. But on balance, today's prurience is better. Kennedy should not have treated women the way he did, and it would have been better if he had felt under some constraint in his search for sexual pleasure.

Even if Mr Clinton did not like the new rules of the political game, he cannot argue that he did not know what they were. His behaviour has been quite perverse and self-destructive. To embark on an affair with an intern in the run-up to the 1996 election, and at a time when his private life was already under scrutiny in a sexual harassment case, almost beggars belief.

It does not matter that adultery is not grounds for impeachment. Mr Clinton is in trouble because he lied to the American people ("I did not have sexual relations with that woman - Ms Lewinsky") and because, as the Starr report is bound to set out in some detail, he committed perjury in his evidence for the Paula Jones case.

We can expect endless argument over the next few days and probably months over whether this and any other evidence of attempted obstruction of justice amounts in any way to the "high crimes and misdemeanours" encompassed in the US constitution as the grounds for impeachment. It seems unlikely that the framers of that great document intended it to do so, but in practice the phrase means whatever Congress wants it to mean.

That is as it should be. The benefit of the impeachment mechanism is that it provides a democratic safeguard - it is not as easy to impeach a president as it is to sack a prime minister, but it is easier than getting rid of a hereditary monarch. It also seems much easier now than it was before Richard Nixon's resignation. If Mr Clinton loses the confidence of the overwhelming majority of the American people, and their representatives, he will be impeached. It would not be particularly fair: Nixon's crimes against democracy were far more heinous, and in terms of public policy, Ronald Reagan's dealings in the Iran-contra affair were much more reprehensible. And he got off scot-free. But Mr Clinton will have brought it upon himself. In that sense, impeachment is real democracy in action.

Regardless of the impeachment process, however, the President is now not a lame duck but a dead duck. He is a tittering-stock not just in America but around the world. We cannot watch him on television without our eyes being drawn unwillingly to his mid-section. American teachers cannot teach the rule of law without sniggers at the back of the class.

The heart of the matter is personal: the President's personal judgement and his lack of shame. This is where the personal and the political overlap. The outcome should be decided not by the constitutional and legal machinery of impeachment but by Mr Clinton's personal honour: he should consider whether his resignation would be in the interests of the Presidency, the nation and the world.