The shame of a great nation Clinton scandal: Investigation gives priority to lunatic prurience.

January 27, 1998

THE PRINCIPAL IMPRESSION from the controversy swirling around President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky is that the American body politic has taken leave of its senses. Not just Mr. Clinton but all Washington has become the butt of ridicule.

War and peace in the Persian Gulf, economic collapse in Asia, reduction of the national debt, pressure for peace in the Middle East, reduction of crime, prosperity at home count for little. What matters to us is -- titter, titter -- what she said and he said and he did or didn't. Is that who Americans are?

Attorney General Janet Reno and the panel of judges authorizing the independent counsel to probe the possibility of perjury and subornation of perjury -- in depositions recently taken in a fishing expedition growing from a civil lawsuit concerning allegations about events before the Clinton presidency -- have shown a lapse of judgment fatal to the dignity of America.

The independent counsel, Kenneth W. Starr, has taken his vendetta to its mad conclusion. He launched the FBI on a dragnet for evidence contradicting a civil lawsuit deposition about a recent activity outside his purview, which is not using the Justice Department's resources to fight crime and protect the national security, but quite the reverse.

Pundits and politicians intone that presidential removal be considered for uttering falsehood to the American people. But what they talk about is prurience and a modern-day perversion of "The Mikado" sentence of decapitation for the crime of flirting.

Life is imitating art, but not the talked-about movie, "Wag the Dog." It is mimicking the century-old ludicrosities of Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, except they had the tunes. The chorus of dancing buffoons consists not only of Mr. Clinton and Linda Tripp and Ms. Lewinsky but Ms. Reno and Mr. Starr and all the lawyers and spinmeisters and pious journalists. Bizarre.

Events have gone so far that it is impossible to rebut the solemn admonitions that Mr. Clinton tell the whole truth. He should. Americans hope he has. But what are we demanding he tell the whole truth about? Matters reserved to privacy for almost all people.

Watergate was about the abuse of political power and Iran-contra about great matters of state. What is this? If Americans must hound the man from office, let the reason be worthy.

Linda R. Tripp is widely reported to have committed a crime in Howard County, taping phone calls without consent. She had no authorization from a law enforcement agency. Others have been convicted of this crime in Maryland. Surely the Howard County state's attorney must launch an investigation leading to prosecution should the facts warrant.

For the rest, the genie is out of the bottle. The president's attack dog defenders ought to shut up. The press which has violated all of its previous standards ought to go after the real story, the leaks of information from official investigations by persons forbidden by law and regulation to leak it.

President Clinton ought to be ashamed of himself for putting the nation in this mess. Arrogance from escaping prior scrapes may have given him an air of invincibility to which no one is entitled. Keeping him in office is not the nation's biggest problem. Retrieving its dignity is.

Pub Date: 1/27/98

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