Clinton acquittal: running the country

What are we going to talk about now?; RELIEF AND DISBELIEF

I t is President's Day Weekend in the United States, a three-day holiday to mark the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. This year, it might also be the moment to celebrate William Jefferson Clinton, who awoke yesterday liberated at last from an investigation into his private life that consumed him, his family and the whole nation for 13 months and at times threatened to oust him from office.

So sour is the taste left behind by the Lewinsky affair, however, that celebrating was hardly on the mind of any American. There was relief, certainly. A collective thank-God-its-over that resonated from coast to coast. If the Monica Lewinsky affair had once polarised the nation, by yesterday there was a near consensus that its end, at last, was welcome. There is a country to run, after all.

And most voters, according to overnight polls, approved of the decisions to acquit. A survey by the CBS television network said that 64 per cent agreed that the President should not have been dismissed from his job. More than half even responded positively to the question, "Can Clinton be trusted to keep his word as president?". Asked if he could still be an "effective president", 74 per cent said he could.

The same poll, however, revealed a lingering sense of disbelief that the shadow cast by Ms Lewinsky since January of last year really is about to be lifted. "Is this matter really over?", the survey asked. Nearly two-thirds thought it was not.

It is scepticism that may be due simply to a failure of imagination. What was life like before Lewinsky first surfaced in Newsweek and on the web page of Matt Drudge and Clinton proclaimed he had never had sex with that woman? Did MSNBC, the cable news channel owned by Microsoft and NBC, even exist before Monicagate? (Actually, it did.) Is there is enough other news to fill the front page of the New York Times? Do we really have to look for Kosovo on a map?

And, in truth, it is not really over. President Clinton may be secure in his White House bedroom again and free to serve the remaining 23 months of his second term, but his legal problems are far from resolved. All eyes now return to Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor, who must decide whether to pursue criminal charges against Mr Clinton on the first day of 2001 when he will finally leave office.

And then there is the future of Mr Starr himself. Janet Reno, the US Attorney General, last week served notice that she may soon be investigating the investigator because of allegations that he illegally leaked information to the media.

Mr Starr, moreover, has another decision to make - when to free Ms Lewinsky from her commitment, made as part of the deal granting her immunity from prosecution, to keep silent about the affair. When he does, another whole new wave of activity will erupt, starting with the publication of Monica's Story, the book she has already authored with the British biographer, Andrew Morton. St Martin's Press, the publishing house, has the book ready, but must wait for the green light from Mr Starr before distributing it. She will also be free then to begin the TV round. On her list already are hour-long interviews with Channel 4 in Britain and with ABC's Barbara Walters in the US.

"This thing isn't going to turn off like a light switch," said William Shine, head of primetime production at Fox News Channel in New York which, like MSNBC, has relied heavily on the twists and turns of Monicagate to feed its programmes.

Eventually, however, Mr Shine and all in his profession will have to find fresh meat for the news schedules and column inches. And when they do, most Americans will be profoundly grateful.

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