Leading Article: Whatever the truth, Clinton has failed the ultimate test

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The Independent Culture
IN THE final analysis the Clinton affair now rests on the "character" question. That, and the opinion polls.

If the American public decides that the President's address on Monday satisfies their sense of what is needed, then he will probably remain in power to the end of his term in January 2001, whatever Kenneth Starr may report to Congress. If, on the other hand, the public is unhappy with the apology and turns against Clinton, then his chances of remaining in power are slim.

And that brings us back to the character question. A great deal of nonsense has been written about the growing liberalism of American society towards sexual impropriety, or "inappropriate behaviour" as it is now inappropriately called. Clinton's continued high ratings before his speech reflected not this but the maturity of a society that knows full well that, in private as well as public lives, marriage and relationships are made up of a complex texture of the said and the unsaid, of what is admitted and what is deliberately left in the air.

Quite rightly they find it wrong to judge others on these private matters, whatever the fundamentalism of their religious beliefs. Nor are they nearly as enamoured of the question of whether he lied as lawyers and pundits would have us believe. What they do judge, however, is the character of a man, even more a president, as he copes with events.

On this Clinton's address proved far from reassuring. Behind the broad apology and admission there were too many weasel words - "wriggle room" as the jargon has it - about whether he lied to the court before, whether he is admitting all now and whether, indeed, he would be admitting anything if he had not been forced to by the grand jury interview.

Character is a difficult test. Nixon clearly failed the test. But then so, on present evidence, would John F Kennedy. But it is what people feel most instinctively about. And rightly. If they decide against him - and their decision is far more important than Starr's since it is they who will influence Congress in its decision on impeachment - then Clinton loses all credibility.

Without credibility he has little use as a president abroad any more than at home. As long as he has the sanction of popular support, then the world should support him. But without support at home, then how can the US act with any force in Northern Ireland, where he goes in a few weeks; in the Middle East, where events are turning from bad to worse; or anywhere else? The world does not demand of America that it acts as the constant authority figure, intervening to punish or to praise on every occasion. However, as we know all too well from Bosnia, the world finds it awfully difficult to achieve resolutions of particular conflicts without the creative presence or pressure of the one remaining superpower. Benjamin Netanyahu and Saddam Hussein are bound to take advantage of a weak American President. They have already started to do so.

Unfortunately, without the backing of a Republican-dominated Congress, the President's ability to act abroad is entirely dependent on his ability to appeal to the American public. Madeleine Albright is too tied to Clinton's prestige to act on her own. Her whole strength has come from her access to the White House.

Clinton is not a man to give up power easily. But, then, neither was Richard Nixon, and in the end he resigned. Not because he was found out, but because conditions had become such that he could not conduct his office properly. Within the next few weeks, the same may be true of Clinton. He should make the same decision as the man he so affects to despise, but whose path he now seems doomed to tread.