Leading article: Clinton flaws aren't fatal

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THE portrayal of Bill Clinton in Primary Colors as a huge, flawed, rambling barn of a character seems more accurate with every day that passes. This is a tribute to the literary and journalistic skills of "Anonymous" (also known as Joe Klein), but also raises the pertinent question in present circumstances: Mr Clinton is a flawed man, but is he a good president?

Once again, the political and media village of Washington DC - a more closed community than the Amish - is in a high old state and talking about the impeachment of the President. Trying manfully to rise above the tacky and the trivial, commentators have sought to elevate the "character issue" to an affair of state by shaking their heads over the bad business of lying on oath. To be sure, lying is not something to be encouraged, but there is a vast amount of legalistic molehill-enlargement going on here. We should remind ourselves what the President is accused of lying about, and ask ourselves how much it matters. Even if everything alleged by Paula Jones is true, it would amount to a charge of lewd conduct, warranting a big apology and a small fine. Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor, has focused instead on the alleged cover-up: lying about the subsequent - and entirely consensual - affair with Monica Lewinsky and using presidential clout to get her a job which would encourage her to lie. Not good, but it registers no more than 2.3 on the Richter scale of presidential misdemeanours in history. Since none of this could conceivably justify impeachment, Mr Starr could properly have closed down his circus long ago.

The American public seems to share this relaxed and liberal view of the distinction between public virtue and private vice. On the issue that really matters to them - it's the economy, stupid - they think the President has done and is doing a good job. In this judgement they are sadly mistaken. If any individual could take credit for the present long boom in the US, an unlikely proposition in itself, that person is Alan Greenspan rather than the President. Like Asquith in Britain in 1910, Mr Clinton was re-elected on the back of a long economic summer over which the government of the day had virtually no control. He has been the fortunate beneficiary of an unusually sustained upswing in the business cycle - which is showing the first signs of coming to an end only now. When Richard Nixon once snarled that no one could accuse him of screwing up the American economy he was merely articulating a post-war truth about the limitations of presidential power.

For the rest of the world, Mr Clinton's period at the helm of the sole superpower has been similarly unremarkable. He inherited the morass caused by dither and delay in Bosnia and a bungled intervention in Somalia, and managed to blunder his way through both with moderate credit. He resisted Congressional pressure for trade protection, which is an achievement that should not be under-rated. On the big geo-political issues of his two terms, it may be too early to judge him. In managing the unwinding of the Cold War, the sense is that he makes it up as he goes along - in handling relations with Russia and the question of nuclear proliferation. His recent visit to China was a worthwhile venture, even if it offended the Japanese. After an unconvincing start in Northern Ireland, he played a personal and constructive role in securing the Good Friday Agreement. His greatest failure has been his refusal to challenge Israel's obstruction of the Middle East peace process.

As he draws to the end of his two-term presidency - and that in itself is quite an achievement - with another term for the Democrats in prospect, the conclusion remains surprisingly downbeat. We cannot dissent from his adviser Dick Morris's assessment of his likely status in history as a "borderline third-tier president". It was a surprisingly candid judgement to offer to the President, but Mr Morris in his memoir reported that Mr Clinton took it on the chin. The President is a flawed man who has been lucky in the timing of his coming to power. If we condemn him, it should not be for gross personal conduct, but for his failings in public policy. In the final analysis, history is likely to reach what is, especially in the context of the past week, a startling conclusion - that President Clinton's principal contribution, both to the US and the world, was to avoid making too many mistakes.

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