Leading Article: The office of the President deserves better than this

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The Independent Culture
WILL THE Comeback Kid make it this time? No one at this point really knows. His fate, as the House of Representatives prepares to vote on his impeachment, hangs in a balance that could still be tilted by a midnight call, a last-minute intervention or even some dramatic gesture by the President himself. The odds are moving against him, but he has fought himself out of a corner before and may yet do so again.

The harder question for the United States, and the rest of the world, is: do we really want him to survive this time? No one - except for a hard core of a Republican right that still hankers for revenge for the ousting of Richard Nixon - actually wants to see the indignity of full impeachment proceedings. It would do nothing for American democracy and even less for the country's position in the world.

But then Bill Clinton cannot be said to be doing much for either, even without a trial. Only a month ago he seemed to have everything in his hands. The US public had voted clearly that it did not wish his private life to become a public issue. His chief tormentor, Newt Gingrich, had resigned. Nothing, it seemed, would prevent him coasting, soiled but not beaten, until the end of his term.

That assumption, to put it mildly, has proved to be mistaken. Clinton, like almost all the commentators, seemed to forget the simple point that the impeachment vote in the House of Representatives would be made by the outgoing Congress, not the newly elected one, which does not take office until January. The Republican majority has proved determined not to let their catch slip away so easily while they still have him in their grasp.

Their partisanship is far from edifying. But then Clinton himself has behaved little better. Sensing freedom from his pursuers, he has acted as though his problems were over. It is not so much that he has been triumphalist, as that he has been complacent. And that, to his critics and to those who remained undecided, was not good enough for a man who - in their eyes - had perjured himself and abused his office for sexual gratification.

This is the "character question" that has overhung the President from the beginning of the Lewinsky affair and is so damaging to him at this moment. What exactly he did in the Oval Office or elsewhere with a young intern totally besotted with having a relationship with the President is nobody's business but those directly concerned. The public may be interested, but it can claim no right to know. That is what most voters felt last November, and it still holds true today. But the American public and the politicians appear to have equally come to the conclusion that he didn't behave well, that he did lie about it, and that his constant evasions and sophistry are bringing the office of the President into disrepute.

This is more than a matter of partisan politics. It is about office, and Clinton's ability to exercise that office. When the first question asked of the American President on arriving on a crucial peace mission in Israel is "Mr President, are you going to resign?", it is clear that Clinton cannot exercise real leadership. There is always the argument that this does not really matter in domestic terms, although Americans take a lofty view of the position, if not the job, of President.

But it does matter to a world where Iraq is being threatened with bombs, where the Middle East peace process is falling apart, where Kosovo continues to ignite the Balkans and where Asia has been thrown into turmoil by recession.

It is time that Bill Clinton ended the prevarication and the semantics. He owes it to his supporters at home and his allies abroad to come clean and accept that he has abused the highest office in the land. If that does not stop the rot, then he has only one course that leaves him and the US with any dignity - to resign.