The Three Questions

N.Y. Times
9-18-98 A. Rosenthal

By A.M. ROSENTHAL The Three Questions WASHINGTON -- President Clinton has forced the members of Congress to face three questions, whether or not the American people will like the answers:

Two of them have already been answered. Like most Americans I have been struggling with my own answer to the third question, or was fleeing it.

The first question: Is Mr. Clinton fit to remain President? There may be reasons that Congress considers important enough to allow him to serve out his term -- but fit, no.

A man who risks the Presidency of the U.S., its moral and political worth in American life, the confidence of the people in it, its very ability to function under his direction, all to satisfy himself sexually for the moment, is not stable enough within himself to be entrusted with America.

Perhaps we would all lie to save ourselves from deep sexual embarrassment and trouble. But if we did so under oath and then lied again and again about it, we would know we would have to do more to escape jail than tell the judge we were real sorry.

Still, if this were his first lie . But it isn't. He has lied so often that it has become another sign of a broken rudder.

He lied during the Presidential campaign -- the draft notice matter. Then he went on to lie to the American people about their own national interests -- how he would fight for human rights against the Communist Chinese dictatorship, how Saddam Hussein was complying with U.N. inspections at the very time Iraq was preparing to end inspection, whether high-tech missile sales to Beijing could compromise U.S. security.

Jesse Jackson said in 1992: "I can maybe work with him but I know now who he is, what he is. There is nothing this man won't do. He is immune to shame. Move past all the nice posturing and get really down in there in him, you find absolutely nothing ..... nothing but an appetite."

Senator Bob Kerrey, the Nebraska Democrat, was a bit gentler: "Clinton's an unusually good liar, unusually good."

Both quotes come from William J. Bennett's solidly valuable new book, "The Death of Outrage -- Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals" (The Free Press). Read it, particularly if you are sure you won't agree.

Second question: Has Mr. Clinton's risk-taking already so deeply damaged the Presidency that it cannot be repaired while he is in office?

 This week I heard him give a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York about the world's economic crisis and how "it is time for us to rise to our responsibility."

I thought: You call on us to rise to our responsibility? Other members told me they had the same thought. One just snickered and made a dirty joke out of the sentence. The military cashiers or imprisons members who commit adultery, particularly with subordinates. How in decency will William Clinton take the salute from the men and women he commands while he whines not to be punished for the same offense, repeated and repeated?

Millions of Americans still want him in office. That does not change the truth that he has made the Presidency a bottle of cynical poison for many of us and a dirty joke for the country. Damage enough.

 Third: How do we repair the damage as best we can?

A motion of Congressional censure would endorse Mr. Clinton's definition of responsibility. Take the chance whatever the risk. If caught, plead for compassion. If handed an act of censure, bite your lip in sorrow. Then when you pass the troops in parade keep a straight face.

The final choice, impeachment by the House of Representatives and a removal trial by the Senate -- that's frightening to most of us.

For about two years, a new President would be in office while Russia fell apart, Saddam incited war and terrorists scouted America. How strong would he be?

We do not know if Al Gore would be any better in office than Mr. Clinton. But then we never do know about a Vice President who becomes President, do we? Maybe he will stop echoing Mr. Clinton's apologies and evasions. Maybe he will be Truman!

But we would know that under the Constitution we removed an unfit man who risked and soiled the Presidency while shaming himself personally . And we will have given Bill Clinton what he needs most -- the choice in private life to keep rock-ing in waves of his own making or recover the stability he has so long lost.

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company