Everything to play for in the struggle for America's soul

Andrew Stephen in Washington wonders if Starr's campaign is up a cul-de-sac
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The Independent Online
TWO AMERICAS are joined in battle this weekend: amoral America and immoral America. The first is represented by Bill Clinton and his allies, the second by Kenneth Starr and at least some of the Congressmen who on Thursday voted to begin impeachment proceedings against the President.

Clinton's amorality should have been evident to the world - and even to the American electorate - when, during the 1992 presidential campaign, he returned to Arkansas for the execution by lethal injection of Rickey Ray Rector, a 22-stone mentally handicapped black man who was too brain- damaged to know he was being executed. By making the trip home, the then Governor Bill Clinton gained a few more vital points with the blood-hungry American electorate. At the time people who knew Clinton well insisted that he was strongly opposed to the death penalty. Rector, none the less, became an unwitting participant in Clinton's relentless drive to power. From that night I knew that Clinton was an essentially amoral man.

The immorality in the years following Clinton's election has been represented by the heavily financed, politically inspired witch-hunt against him, a campaign that climaxed last week with the impeachment vote in the House of Representatives. That witch-hunt has always had only one aim: to subvert the democratic will of American voters in 1992 and 1996 by overturning the elections and throwing Clinton out of office.

Having failed to find him guilty of financial fraud, drug-running, or involvement in the suicide of Vince Foster, to name just three of the wild charges hurled at Clinton by right-wing Republicans, an "independent prosecutor" - Kenneth Starr - had to resort to ordering electronic surveillance by the FBI and holding a terrified 24-year-old woman against her will for more than 11 hours with the desperate, prurient aim of nailing Clinton on his sex life. Incidentally, that independent prosecutor just happens to have been Solicitor General in the Bush administration that was so soundly trounced by Clinton.

The Republicans and Kenneth Starr are now sure they have nabbed their man once and for all. Certainly an avalanche of more Clintonian lies about sex is still to come when new evidence from the Paula Jones case is unleashed to the world in eight days' time. They are confident that they have already won America's great battle of morality.

But I'm not so sure. It could be that, precisely because they have acted in so immoral a fashion, Starr and the Republicans are busily backing themselves into a perilous cul-de-sac. In his over-zealousness, Starr himself may well have acted illegally in his wire-tapping and use of entrapment; already the Attorney General, Janet Reno, is investigating whether Starr misled the Justice Department when he sought approval last January to extend his Whitewater investigation (remember that?) to include the unfortunate Monica Lewinsky and what he so primly calls her "sexual episodes" with the President.

We already know that "Keyhole Ken", as a colleague here now refers to Starr, offered his services in the Paula Jones case before he was even appointed independent prosecutor. We know, too, that right-wing funds of dubious origin have financed that case. We now also know that Starr's office was aware of Linda Tripp's wire-tapping of her "friend" Monica before the date he claimed to Congress he knew what she was up to. We know too that Tripp, the woman who just happened to be Starr's key witness, was frantically trying to entrap Lewinsky and Clinton (and his friend Vernon Jordan) in, yes, the very same Paula Jones case that Keyhole Ken tried to help along years ago.

What we don't know yet is the full extent of the Jones-Tripp-Starr axis, and whether Starr has successfully covered his tracks. Lewinsky was viciously betrayed by Tripp; now Starr is betraying Tripp, threatening her with prison for her own piece of law-breaking.

Will she now find some way to betray Starr? It is a viper's nest. But the amoral wagons of the Clinton camp are now slowly beginning to encircle Starr's immoral wagons, and it will be a battle to the death; one man, Clinton or Starr, will go down.

Which brings us to the mid-term elections on 3 November. The Republicans complacently assume that Clinton's endless humiliations will result in landslides for them, which will then give them a people's mandate to proceed with Clinton's impeachment. The trouble with this strategy, though, is that polls consistently show that the inside-the-Beltway elite of Washington - the media as well as the politicians - is out of touch with public opinion.

And Clinton is far too much of a political slugger to concede defeat, however miserable his life has now become. I saw the first of what I suspect will be many similar political ads on television on Friday evening, for a Democrat standing against a Republican incumbent.

Congressman Rick White, we are told in those hushed, soothing tones of the all-knowing American voice-over, voted to impeach Bill Clinton. Then the voice goes on, its quiet authority overlaid by just a hint of contempt: "Rick White's vote on impeachment will drag us through months and months of more mud and politics." The ad then cuts to the fresh-faced Democratic opponent, all eager-beaver to tackle real issues: "What the President did was wrong but..." - whence we learn of all the important matters Congress should be dealing with rather than Monica, Monica, Monica.

It was curiously beguiling and begat a theme that will strike a chord with the electorate. The Republican Congress is finishing its year's work, having passed only 33 bills during 1998, half the number usually passed in an election year. Then there was good ol' Honest-But-Flawed Bill, persecuted for his sex life but heroically trying to run a nation - striving to improve social security, education, to secure "our children's future", and so on. And Clinton's foes and Starr? Voters are left to draw their own conclusion: the futures of America's children may yet go down the plughole because those damned Republicans are too obsessed with sex to care about anything else.

The Republicans almost certainly will make gains on 3 November - the party currently in control of Congress usually does, and turnout is unlikely to exceed 35 per cent - but I predict it will not be the Republican rout widely expected. Clinton, I'm told, will also campaign very visibly for the Democratic challenger to Senator Al D'Amato of New York, and that could just be a surprise gain for the Democrats, which will then be all due to Clinton, of course. That would be one up for amorality, one down for immorality. But quite where it would leave America is anyone's guess.

Andrew Stephen is Washington correspondent of the 'New Statesman'.