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Leading Article: Clinton is not finished yet

LET'S NOT be sophisticated about this. No decent person can fail to be disgusted, or at least dismayed, by the account given in the Starr report of President Clinton's coarse, adolescent gropings with Monica Lewinsky. Among those who do not actually hate him, Bill Clinton is held in low esteem at best, and, at worst, in sniggering disregard. That said, however, no decent person can fail to feel at least some sympathy for a man so humiliated and exposed. Few of us would survive a ruthless investigation into our private lives, and very few of us would tell the unvarnished truth, even under oath, about our own sexual misbehaviour. Therein lies Clinton's possible salvation. The Great Schmoozer knows how to play on sympathy. Kenneth Starr may inadvertently have turned a horny Arkansas redneck and pathological liar into that most powerful of American folk heroes - a victim. The man seen by his detractors as an enemy of the people and of the constitution may yet be saved by the people and the constitution.

None of this is to make light of Clinton's conduct. His attempts at damage limitation have been, and will continue to be, revolting. While apologising profusely at various award ceremonies and prayer meetings, he has simultaneously pursued a scorched-earth policy behind the scenes. The White House's hand can be seen in a spate of salacious magazine profiles about the President's Republican investigators: in particular, the revelation that the Congressional Republican Dan Burton fathered an illegitimate child in the 1980s.

But Starr's report adds nothing more than a Mills & Boon-romance level of colour to the story of an office fling (and cover-up) that has been known about, in most of its essentials, for months. That is a flimsy pretext for overturning a presidential election, particularly when all the President's peccadilloes at issue - womanising, truth-shading, a lack of political scruples - were well-known to the public that elected him. This is a public, remember, that elected a man it knew to have been a womanising, drug-using - if not inhaling - draft dodger and that has ratified its decision again and again by giving a 60 per cent approval rating to the President in opinion polls.

Starr's report, moreover, is the culmination of trends as pernicious as the corruption it purports to expose. First, its 11 counts of impeachment deal solely with the Monica Lewinsky affair and the understandable lying that surrounded it. The investigation has discovered no crimes that it did not first provoke. Starr has failed utterly, after half a decade, to link any presidential misconduct to the Whitewater fraud case that gave rise to the investigation in the first place. In this light, the independent counsel law is exactly what its critics claim it is: a freelancing fourth branch of government that functions solely to harass the executive.

Second, as if to prove the old saw about Puritanism being the daylight face of prurience, the report is lurid, vulgar and pornographic. One can argue that Clinton brought this treatment on himself, with his disingenuous claims not to understand what investigators were talking about when they interrogated him about "sexual relations". But in no sense does establishing the President's culpability of perjury or witness-tampering require details about cigars used as sex toys or the fellatio-enhancing properties of Altoids peppermints, much of it in the form of uncorroborated grand-jury testimony.

Third, Congress has made the report a spur to those twin evils of American administration: mobocracy and legalism. Unwilling to take the responsibility or electoral risk of moving against a still-popular president, the Republican- controlled House voted, in effect, to call in extraparliamentary reinforcements. Releasing the report on the internet was intended to provoke such instantaneous disgust that no Congressmen could stand up to it.

But disgust may turn into pity, albeit sentimental pity. The President, in his humiliation, may be seen as a victim. He knows what to do. There will be more saccharine sharing of pain in the weeks ahead. Perhaps he will not actually appear on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and no doubt his schedule - there will be all those prayer meetings to attend - will not leave him time to check into a sex-addiction clinic. All the same, he will certainly be "on the programme". If he can harness the power of the people, he can survive.

Impeachment is unlikely. Clinton's behaviour may, in the eyes of his sterner critics, merit eternal damnation, but it hardly constitutes grounds for impeachment. His lawyers have argued that none of the charges against the President rises to the level of "high crimes and misdemeanours" which the constitution stipulates as grounds for impeachment. Republicans have responded that this language is so devoid of meaning that "high crimes and misdemeanours" are whatever Congress deems them to be. They are wrong. The understanding of the American founders was that "high crimes" are crimes against the constitution. While there can now be little doubt that Clinton is a dishonest man with a near-uncontrollable sexual appetite, these are personal failings, not constitutional ones. Americans often brag that their constitution, unlike those of European countries, does not leave its chief executive liable to the vicissitudes of changing opinion. Now they appear to be suffering from an advanced case of parliament-envy: reports such as Starr's are the closest thing America has to a motion of no confidence.

The fact is that the mightiest nation in the world has a constitutional system that keeps a shifty satyr in its highest office. That may worry some people outside the United States. It worries some people in the United States. But, in American terms, it really would be a high crime and misdemeanour to flout that system in a fit of priggish pique.