Clinton's Testimony: The President meets his Prosecutor

White House sex case: At last, Clinton testifies on details of his relationship with the most famous intern in history
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BILL CLINTON has had his say. Now, the big question for America is whether people are satisfied with his answers. In particular, it remains to be seen what they think of the fact that their head of state has lied under oath.

The inquiry led by Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel, into the President will continue, whatever Mr Clinton said in his testimony yesterday. There will be more witnesses at the grand jury, and possibly a report to the Congress, but public opinion will help to decide whether or not the Congress has any stomach to take action against Mr Clinton; and it will determine to what degree the President remains an effective player for the remaining two years of his term in office.

Today, the press will go over his confessional in minute detail, and as the dust starts to settle, people will decide what, in the end, they think of Bill Clinton.

The opinion poll data appear unambiguous. His job approval ratings actually rose after the claims of sexual impropriety first appeared in January, and they remain around 60 per cent - high for any President, let alone one in the midst of a paralysing political problem.

Since January, the percentage who believe that he has lied has actually increased, from around 49 per cent to 70 per cent. In the same period, the number who think he should be impeached if he did lie has, however, fallen from 50 per cent to 29 per cent: people thought he did even before last night, and they did not care.

Indeed, the overwhelming mood in the country seems to be: "Let's get this over with." Most people believe that it would have been better if the inquiry into the President's sex life had never started, and few say they want to know more about it.

There is an intense desire, on the part of many people, for closure, and they (and the President) will hope that this has now been achieved.

But he could still be in grave trouble. People change their minds. It may be that if the President is still believed to be dissembling, or holding back, then those who have withheld their judgment or given Mr Clinton the benefit of the doubt may shift positions. The simple fact that he did lie, whatever the verbal gymnastics, will shock many.

There has already been a price paid for the episode. In Clinton's first year of office, public belief in Mr Clinton's honesty and trustworthiness ran about 6 to 9 percentage points above his job approval rating; now it runs 30 points behind. What has kept people happy has been the way that he has done the job, the sunny state of the economy, and the general perception that those who were attacking him have not always had clean hands.

So far, the American people have taken the revelations with remarkable equanimity. All of the tales of semen-stained dresses and oral sex seem to have done little but create jokes. The nation is undoubtedly less prudish than many had assumed.

But it is clear that dishonesty does upset people, and deeply. As clearly as the polls indicated that Mr Clinton was not in any trouble so far, they also showed that most would not tolerate any more lying: 60 per cent have said that if Mr Clinton lied to the grand jury, then he should be impeached. This is why his lawyers were at pains to try to remove the impression that they were creating a "strategy": he would simply tell the truth, they said.

It seems likely that it is on the question of the President's truthfulness (or lack of it) that judgements will now rest. The key issue, for the investigators, has never been sex: it has always been lying, and the degree to which the President and his colleagues sought to cover up evidence. That is where Mr Clinton is, and has always been, vulnerable: he has a track record of never quite matching up with the truth. If there is further evidence that he lied, or persuaded others to lie, then his agony may only just be beginning, and the public will not lightly forgive him.

There are several groups of people who are more critical of Mr Clinton than others: independent voters, retired men, and, significantly, suburban women. Many women have wavered between a sympathetic attitude to a President who has been perceived to be more sensitive to womens' issues than previous incumbents, and harsh criticism of a man who has clearly transgressed repeatedly against his wife. It was suburban women - "soccer moms", as they were known - who were vital in both Clinton's election victories, and it will do the Democrats no good if they have been estranged.

The longer-term political impact is still hard to calculate. It may not affect the upcoming mid-term Congressional elections or the 2000 Presidential election very much.

Most of what has happened attaches to Clinton, and not to the party. But there will be a lasting impact - on the office of President itself.

Mr Clinton, while occupying a post for which most Americans have little but reverence, has clearly behaved in a way that would be unsuitable for any private-sector employee, let alone, say, a headmaster or a doctor.

Many Americans - elected officials, members of his own staff and others - have been disgusted by the last few weeks. They will not forget: and though they may still carry on their work for him, campaign for the party and vote for it, they will not easily forgive Bill Clinton.