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Crisis in Washington: People show that they are feeling Clinton's pain

NOTHING THAT President Clinton has ever said produced more groans of cynicism nationwide than his "I feel your pain" declaration back in 1992. A politician pretending to feel empathy for Everyman? Tell us another one.

And yet here we are, two days after Mr Clinton's impeachment, and voters are returning him the favour. They, in vast numbers, are feeling his pain.

As Michael Kinsley, the editor of the online Slate magazine writes in this week's Time, that the real story of this extraordinary year in American politics has not been that the President had his way with a 21-year-old intern in the Oval Office, or that he became the first American leader in 130 years to be punished with impeachment.

The big revelation has been the reaction of the people. They did not turn against him.

"Rarely," writes Kinsley, "has such a clear consensus been so unexpected". Unexpected by whom? By the Republicans, one assumes, who ploughed on with impeachment even as the poll numbers showed disapproval with their zeal all through the summer and autumn and who now face the risk of a long- term public backlash.

And unexpected also, perhaps, to the pundits and opinion-peddlers of Washington who have been accused of being blind to opinion beyond the confines of the capital.

That is not to say that public opinion is not having its impact today. Indeed, the polls are all that are saving President Clinton. He can afford to resist the notion of resigning because of the polls. If more than 50 per cent of voters favoured him resigning he would have to think more carefully.

How, though, can we explain this loyalty? The easiest answer lies with the health of the economy. Americans, according to some, are simply too comfortable in this era of unbroken prosperity to worry about the morals of the leader who has delivered it to them.

But there are other things about this scandal that many voters find far more distressing than what Clinton did. Kenneth Starr, for example, has earned opprobrium from all but the most hard-core of Clinton haters. Voters were offended, above all, by the lurid details he chose to put in the report he sent to Congress - the semen on the dress, the thong underwear and that cigar. As for Linda Tripp, the tapes of her conversations with Monica Lewinsky condemn her many times over out of her own mouth as sickeningly manipulative.

And voters hate the partisanship that became most apparent in the votes taken on Saturday. The Republicans huff and puff that they are motivated only by a desire to uphold the constitution and that their stand has nothing to do with party politics, but few in this country, it seems, believe a word of it.

It may also be that they hate the intrusion that the impeachment effort represents. This, after all, is a scandal about the personal failings of a human being.

What wonderful irony there is here. The Republicans are meant to stand for keeping the government out of the day-to-day living of Americans. Low taxes, minimum regulations, gun ownership and so forth. And yet here they are, tearing open the private life of the President and using what they find to try to force him out of office.

At bottom, however, it may be that American society has simply moved on. There is perhaps a new tolerance out there. An understanding that humans are not perfect and that it is pointless to believe that any human can be so, not even the President of the United States.