The true face of America

If uncomfortable truths come out of Clinton's lying, he may unwittingly have done us a favour
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TODAY, TOMORROW, at the very latest Saturday, America's year of laughing-crying agony will end with the acquittal of Bill Clinton on a new-fangled technicality: his poll-rated popularity. Only the second president of the United States to be tried by the Senate will be spared to serve out his term, and by a far wider margin than the single vote that saved his comrade in impeachment, Andrew Johnson, in 1868. Will Presidents' Day - which falls this weekend to commemorate the likes of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and John F Kennedy - ever be the same again?

As the US Senate nears its verdict, the dominant image is of an all- conquering Clinton, striding unscathed through a battlefield strewn with the corpses of his enemies: the independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, two House Republican leaders (one incumbent, one designate), a posse of influential Republicans who turned out to be preaching what they did not practise, and a string of women, among them Linda ("The Snitch") Tripp and "Santa Monica" herself, whose reputations lie in shreds. The arrows rebound off the President to fell his attackers instead.

Already, the United States is drawing conclusions from all this, but they are not necessarily the right ones.

It is taken for granted that Kenneth Starr and his ilk will not ride again. The Independent Counsel Statute, introduced after Watergate to prevent presidents flouting the judicial process, will be allowed to lapse when it comes up for renewal in June. To Clinton supporters, both the office and its holder were at fault. The office, because it seemed to place a member of the judiciary in judgement over the President, a task reserved by the Constitution for Congress. The holder, because Starr was seen as over-zealous, intruding into areas, such as the President's sex life, that Americans regarded as private.

The fact is, though, that there is no real need either to jettison the independent counsel or to criticise Starr. The system functioned as it was intended to. Richard Nixon was on the fast track to removal through the constitutional process when forced to resign. His dismissal of the special counsel investigating him may have delayed his departure; it did not prevent it.

Similarly, the existence of the independent counsel and Starr's handling of the Lewinsky investigation may have delayed Clinton's survival, but they did not prevent it. The President's fate was left in the hands of the US Congress, where the Constitution said it belonged.

Because Starr's office appears doomed, his handling of the case will also be written off. But the evidence he unearthed and the conclusions he drew were not contested by the White House or by Democratic politicians. Four out of five Americans say they believe that Clinton committed perjury and obstructed justice - the charges in the two Articles of Impeachment against him.

The verdict of Americans is split - guilty but worthy of office - and it will be effectively ratified by the Senate. The contradiction calls into question the other legal change that is likely to follow the trial: the unanimous Supreme Court ruling that a sitting president may be sued in the civil court. That ruling required him to defend the sexual harassment suit brought by Paula Jones. It led directly to the subpoena for Monica Lewinsky, and the rest is about to be history. If challenged in future, the Supreme Court may choose not to argue again that the distraction to a president from such a lawsuit is outweighed by the principle that all citizens have the right to redress through the courts.

Where Clinton is concerned, Americans may accept such a change. But it sacrifices a principle that the US has stood for from its foundation, a principle much cited by the prosecutors in the course of the Senate trial: a president is not a king; no one is above the law.

Forsaking this principle may not precipitate the dire consequences prophesied by the gloomy representative from Illinois, Henry Hyde, who asked whether "an America will survive that is worth fighting for", but it is a moment worth marking. It could make Clinton the last president not to be above the law - largely because Americans decided that he should be. They believed him guilty as charged, but loved him all the same.

For some - mostly on the left - the President's acquittal means that the impeachment process should never have been started, because the offences were "all about sex". Impeachment has been "defined downwards"; henceforward, they argue, it will signify Congressional disapproval and nothing more. For others - mostly on the right - it means that the Senate was too lenient. If Congress will not remove the President for breaking his oath to uphold the law, what president can ever be removed from office, for anything? In their view, it is the presidency that has been "defined downwards" and will never again wield moral authority.

Clinton's impeachment is being blamed for causing this divide and for the descent of politics into party-political warfare. But the divide is nothing new, nor is the incivility; impeachment merely exposed it.

The one institution that is deemed to have survived with its dignity intact is the Senate. But this is precisely the conclusion that should not be drawn. The Senate was every bit as divided on impeachment as the House, but Senators had the luxury of retreating behind closed doors to hammer out their differences. The Senate was barely criticised for such secrecy. But the truth is, that the institution is badly out of touch with urban America, and that senators are just as adept at ensuring their own survival as any other politicians.

The fiercest condemnation of the Senate's verdict is coming, predictably, from the right, which warns that acquitting Clinton will change America profoundly for the worse. They hold out the prospect of a moral decline in all areas of public life, which will also undermine the US's authority in the world and, above all, harm "our children".

In truth, though, the impeachment trial and its outcome change nothing. They have simply held up a mirror to America, and if Americans do not like what they see, they had better get used to it, because the reflection is true.

There need be no degradation in public life, because it is not now beyond reproach. Power and money talk; people lie under oath; juries are nobbled. The sexual harassment laws will not be compromised by the President's conduct, because they were already compromised. While the prosecution argued that any chief executive or military officer would be out on his ear if he behaved as Clinton did, those in the know say he would not. The number of senior executives and officers removed for such offences is minute, and the more senior the offender, the more likely he is to survive.

To be sure, candidates for the presidency next time around may be asked probing questions about their private lives. But the lesson from Clinton's impeachment is not, as many are warning, that an imperfect past (or even an imperfect present) is a disqualification from office. It is rather that almost any indiscretion is now survivable, even lying - especially if no one believed you in the first place.

The US's image abroad will not suffer unduly from Clinton's acquittal, because the world has long been more sceptical of US motives and authority than have Americans themselves. And since when have her children been so innocent? Middle-class parents may have been embarrassed and their children may be the most protected in the world, but they are also among the most precociously knowing.

The overriding message from Clinton's acquittal is not that the US will never be the same again, but that it may be more honest about how it really is. And if some uncomfortable truth-telling comes out of Bill Clinton's lying, he may unwittingly have done his country a favour. Until then, we can only reflect how very well suited Clinton is to today's America - and America to him.