Leading Article: Sex, lies and humbug

TOMORROW THE President of the United States will testify by video before a Federal grand jury on whether he perjured himself when he denied a sexual relationship with the White House intern Monica Lewinsky. It is now thought likely that he will admit to some form of intimate relationship with Miss Lewinsky, though not to "sexual relations". But the President's opponents, the independent counsel, Kenneth Starr, and the Republican Congressional majority, are guilty of a graver offence: humbug masquerading as democratic vigilance.

In the first place, Republicans do not really believe Mr Clinton committed a serious tort. His alleged perjury took place in a civil suit Paula Jones filed under sexual-harassment law. When she charged that the then Governor of Arkansas had propositioned her in a hotel room, Clinton was required to answer her questions about his sexual conduct since becoming president. Until Mrs Jones came along, Republicans had insisted that sexual harassment was nothing more than a feminism-fuelled litigative lottery that allowed some women to collect money when men they did not fancy made passes at them. The Republican critique has won broad acceptance. Judges of both political parties now generally respond to sexual harassment cases - as to Paula Jones's - by chucking them out of court.

In the second place, the Republicans once strenuously denied the constitutionality of the independent counsel law, which was passed in 1978 in the wake of Watergate. Kenneth Starr even wrote a brief against the office he now occupies. Until Bill Clinton won the Presidency in 1992, and the Republican campaign of calumny and detraction began, the view of Congressional conservatives was that the independent counsel exists outside the checks and balances envisioned in the constitution.

Yet Mr Clinton himself is no stranger to humbug. He did not complain when the Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas was nearly denied confirmation over a "sexual harassment" incident that consisted of one dirty joke. Nor was he troubled when Ronald Reagan's presidency was crippled after 1987 by the inquiry into the illegal raising of money and arms for the Nicaraguan Contras. It is a telling parallel. Throughout the 1980s, Democrats warned that Mr Reagan was a doddering old warmonger. But that is what the voters wanted - a doddering old warmonger. In the Contra scandal, a Democratic congressional majority and a power-hungry independent prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh, reckoned that if Americans could not be made to see reason at the polls, then the work of removing (or disabling) Mr Reagan had best be done judicially. It is a dangerously anti-democratic tendency.

Starr and the Republicans are making the same mistake. Voters have always been aware that Mr Clinton is, as the Southern idiom has it, a hard dog to keep on the porch. And they don't care. They have prospered under his Presidency. They may even value his goatishness as an antidote to all the prudery and prohibitionism that travels under the "family values" rhetoric of both parties. Such rhetoric is not unknown in this country, of course. In the current issue of the Spectator, the Greek-American playboy Taki writes that the President's offence was that he had not restrained his sexual impulses even though he is the head of a country with " its Christian values written in stone". In fact, the United States is explicitly a non-Christian country. The US Constitution contains many noble sentiments, but nowhere does it mention God, let alone Jesus Christ; and the First Amendment insists on the separation of church and state.

It is true that Bill Clinton, an avowed Baptist, might be expected to take the injunctions of his religion rather more seriously than he apparently does, but he is not the first Baptist, nor the first president, to play away from home. There is indeed a moral question here, but the morality has been muddied by the less attractive members of America's religious right, and by those who cannot and will not reconcile themselves to Clinton's victories in 1992 and 1996.

Mr Clinton must be prosecuted to show that no one is above the law, Republicans argue. This is, as Americans would say, baloney. That no one is above the law is an important American principle, but it gets flouted from time to time, with no lasting damage. That people have a right to the president they elected - provided that he is not guilty of a crime or misdemeanour far more serious than lying about sex - is a principle of incomparably greater importance in a democracy. America ignores it at its peril.