The nation has finally entered the twilight of the now tainted presidency of Bill Clinton, a talented man whose weaknesses have undermined him. Has this tortuous affair irreparably eroded the political and moral underpinnings of our nation? Is it true, as Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) put it so gravely, that the nation is suffering a measure of cynicism that is an "acid eating away at the vital organs of American public life"?
Decidedly, it is not true. Americans are resilient, and our constitutional system has withstood far more severe assaults over the past 210 years and will easily survive this one. This never was a crisis that took the nation to the brink. The healing will take time, of course. We already are in a new election cycle in which each party will flog lingering impeachment issues that it thinks will work to its advantage. That's politics.
The Senate's votes on Friday provided no triumph for any of the players in this yearlong drama. The only relief was that it was over. But the failure Friday to win even a majority of Senate support for either article of impeachment was a severe repudiation of the case assembled by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and prosecuted by the 13 trial managers from the House of Representatives.
Dismissing the public desire for a speedy resolution, the House managers insisted that a harsh censure was not enough, that they had to pursue their constitutional responsibility to the end. And in the end, the system worked precisely as the founding fathers had envisioned: The political passions of the House majority were balanced, and negated, by the Senate's more considered judgment of what was best for the country.
No Victory for Clinton
This certainly was no victory for Clinton, whose appalling lack of judgment, personal morality and common sense brought this sordid mess down upon himself. The American public knew from the beginning that their president had conducted himself shamefully. They knew he lied about and tried to cover up what he had done. The Senate failed to censure Clinton, for tactical political reasons. Nevertheless, the president still was roundly and appropriately condemned in the harshest of terms by individual senators of both parties. His record will be marked by this ignominy.
So today we are left with a president who is largely seen as a liar and a cad for his personal wrongdoing, yet enjoys strong public support for his extraordinary governing ability. The nation remains sound economically, and Clinton's agenda includes issues such as education and Social Security reform that have strong public appeal. Other presidents have remained effective under dire conditions--Harry Truman, for example, after creating a public opinion firestorm by firing war hero Douglas MacArthur as commander of forces in the Korean War in 1951. There is no reason to believe that Clinton necessarily is rendered politically crippled by the Monica Lewinsky affair.
Divided Result for Congress
In Congress, the Senate emerges a stronger, more cohesive body following a trial that was conducted with relative dignity and fairness by its leaders, Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). Among individual senators who distinguished themselves was California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who labored mightily if unsuccessfully in recent weeks to fashion a tough, bipartisan censure resolution. Feinstein felt betrayed by Clinton but also knew that removal from office would not serve the nation. Her level-headed determination merits our appreciation.
In the House, the GOP is a shambles. Stung by 1998 election losses, Republicans gambled heavily on a quick push for impeachment and removal based on Starr's report. Their own moralistic outrage at Clinton blinded them to public sentiment, which was crying out for a punishment that was proportional to the president's offenses--offenses that at no time endangered the nation or our Constitution. House managers never seemed to understand that the public saw their dogged pursuit of Clinton for what it essentially was: a raw partisan attack, one that threatened to become a political version of murder-suicide.
GOP leaders insist that the impeachment debacle will not hurt the party in an election that still is 21 months off. But they surely realize that potential Republican House candidates must decide now whether they are going to run. How many will see the public anger in today's opinion polls and decide that 2000 is not the best year to carry the GOP banner into a tough election fight?
End the Independent Counsel Law