Clinton Acquitted: Political Prospects, Now the real reckoning for a shamed President

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The Independent Online
THE SMOKE has started to clear from the battlefield. The political casualties on both sides are being counted, and - on the Republican side at least, they are huge. But out of the mists of battle, President Bill Clinton emerges, still in office, as large as life and twice as boisterous, with two years of his Presidency left to run.

The past year has focused, to an unprecedented degree, on him, on his intimate life and his personal habits. The issue was not, as it was with Richard Nixon, all those angular staff members plotting war in the furthest corners of South east Asia while breeding dark conspiracies closer to home.

All of the accessories here - the Betty Curries and Vernon Jordans, ambassadors and private detectives - were apparently subordinate to the earthly desires of one man, President William Jefferson Clinton, and the ways in which he had gone about concealing them.

And it is tempting to conclude that his salvation, too, lay ultimately within himself, in his personal resources of strength and his popularity in the country.

He argued from the beginning to his former adviser Dick Morris that it would be necessary to struggle to win the case, that there were no short cuts. After he and Morris had discussed the possibility of an immediate admission of guilt, he concluded that that there was only one way out. "We just have to win," Mr Clinton said.

If there is one thing the past year has taught us about Bill Clinton - if we did not know it already - it is his remarkable resolve in the face of crisis, his ability to turn a major setback into a rousing victory.

He has three tasks ahead of him. The first is to show that he will move on, that politics is now about America and not about him. The second is to create a platform that will pay dividends for the Democrats in the next elections. The third, which will be the most difficult, is to persuade Americans that his Presidency was about more than just sex, lying about sex, and the obstruction of justice.

There will be plenty of talk in the next few days about the huge damage done to political institutions, to the Presidency, to politics itself, and most of it - in the short term - can be written off. The President has confounded his enemies, and he has emerged above the fray.

The institution of the Presidency has been weakened for decades, at least since Watergate, arguably since Lyndon B Johnson's decision not to stand again in 1968 after the disasters of Vietnam. Bill Clinton's personal life may be in ruins, his dignity may be in shreds, but he is still President. And he has huge assets to deploy. What saved him was, in part, the astonishing way he has of communicating with the people of America, individually, en masse, on television, from the rostrum or the flagstones. It is a pre-modern skill; it draws those around him, mystifies and fascinates them.

He will go out into America, campaign before the election even gets under way, and make some noise. He also has a firmer grasp on his own party than ever before.

Relationships have been formed under fire for the past year that will be crucial in the next 12 months, especially with Richard Gephardt, leader of the Democrats in the House. With Mr Gephardt and the Vice-President, Al Gore, he will now start to shape a strategy for keeping the White House, winning the Congress and making a clean sweep in 2000.

What he cannot judge, what no one can at the moment, is what will happen next. The personal consequences for the President have been enormous. If it is true that part of his deal with his wife was that his philandering would be at least discreet, then that bargain is over. Not only the details of what he did, but his thoughts on his marriage - that it was loveless, that he was not sure if it would survive the next two years -are now horribly public. His relationship with his daughter, Chelsea, is said to have suffered particularly badly.

But the riddles and the contradictions of impeachment, and its most deep scars, do not lie in the personality and biology of the President. They lie in the internal dynamics of Washington, in the southern states where white conservatives came to loathe him so much, and in the hearts and minds of people who believed they could topple a President, even when it was clear that that was not what the country wanted. We have been told so often that the President's survival was puzzling that we have almost forgotten: this man was elected to office, twice, and probably would be again if he could stand again.

For two decades, America has been changing. Clinton represents this nation better than the Republicans, and that shone through again and again. You do not have to think he is a good man, or honest, or the best President: you just had to watch the Republicans yesterday, wondering what had hit them, and realising that it was Bill Clinton. A year ago he was written off as terminally wounded. He had to win; he did; and now he will seek to win again.