Leading article: The stained presidency

IT IS over. The grotesque legal spectacle in Washington ended at last on Friday when the Senate voted to acquit President Clinton of perjury and obstruction of justice. We might like to think that the whole dreamlike - or nightmarish - episode which began more than a year ago is over too. Clinton has survived, true, but it would be absurd to claim that he has emerged untarnished, or that the United States will easily recover from the squalor surrounding this presidency. Certainly, not everyone will have been reassured by the Clinton aide who was quoted yesterday as saying that it was now business as usual in the White House. Will they be passing round the cigars this weekend?

To anyone sane it was always obvious that impeachment was a hideously inappropriate and disproportionate punishment for President Clinton's "low crimes and misdemeanours". But that does not absolve the man. Clinton's behaviour has been contemptible throughout, from his initial offences, to his legalistic evasions, to his unbearably mawkish and snivelling apologies. It is not enough to be told that the White House is a "gloat-free zone" after the acquittal. Clinton's (in more than one sense) diminished band of supporters need to make it clear that they understand the outcome.

Plainly adultery isn't in itself a disqualification from high office, as innumerable historical examples show. But Clinton was not merely a decorous adulterer, like many greater prime ministers and presidents before him. His sexual escapades have been both unusually sordid and unusually reckless. More to the point, he has offended not only against the traditional moral code but against the new morality of feminism, which insists that men - and especially men in authority - should not even allow the suspicion that they are abusing their power over younger underlings.

But even if Clinton is a political mediocrity and an unworthy human being, what of his enemies? A year ago, Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke of "a vast right-wing conspiracy" trying to destroy her husband. She was wrong; but there was certainly a small right-wing conspiracy, or several of them. Apart from fascistic militiamen, the bigots of talk radio, Internet crackpots, and religious maniacs, we now know that a group of rich, clever, zealous lawyers have been trying for years to bring down the President, and recognised that the Paula Jones case might be the most fruitful line of approach - as it proved.

Then Kenneth Starr set off on his own mission to bag the President. Unable to substantiate what had seemed far graver accusations of criminality, he, too, realised that Clinton's lewd and ungovernable concupiscence might be his undoing. Even then he needed the uncovenanted help of the unspeakable

Linda Tripp, surely the nastiest figure in the whole story. Thereafter, the plot sickened. There is no doubt that Starr and his associates used forms of harrying and entrapment which would have been thrown out of court in any ordinary case.

In the end, the Republican rightists' fanatical determination to get Clinton has not only deranged them, but has undone them. Under the guise of an elaborate and pompous quasi- judicial proceeding, an attempt was made to mount a coup against a President who had been twice elected, who had presided (doubtless through luck as much as judgement) over a fruitful era in American economic affairs, and whose approval by the electorate was as high as ever even after his various disgraces. What the Republicans persuaded themselves was a principled way of chastising a miscreant looked to more and more Americans like an unprincipled and embittered attempt to reverse the lawful verdict of the polling booth.

And so how does the United States stand six years after William Jefferson Clinton was first inaugurated, and a year after the Lewinsky scandal erupted? Although Clinton has shown again an astonishing talent for survival, it cannot be pleasant for him to contemplate how his presidency will be remembered by posterity. His office, as well as his own standing, has obviously been weakened. And yet that attempt to overthrow the electors' will has been thwarted. No thanks to America's politicians, America's democracy has survived.