Hold on, don't be a quitter lTC

September 11, 1998|By William Safire

WASHINGTON -- Nervous-Nellie candidates, hand-wringing opinionmongers and parents doing a national slow burn should stop calling on President Clinton to resign. Quitting under 36 boxes of evidence is not the American way.

Nor is it in Mr. Clinton's character. The most authentic moment of his presidency was his defiant assertion last month of wrongdoing and victimhood. With no phony lip-biting or spurious apology, he delivered his essential message: I regret that I was caught, but it's my private life so get over it.

That true baring of his soul was soon inundated by leaks from his frustrated speech writers of their rejected draft, which expressed sorrow and apologized to all including Monica.

His stalwart wife had rejected such self-flagellation. Let Clinton be Clinton, advised Hillary Clinton, and the nation got a &r four-minute glimpse of the real man reading his own words and legal evasions. In return, the president -- with unremarked gallantry -- pretended to have lied to his wife for seven months after the scandal broke, thereby giving cover to her vast-conspiracy defense when they thought the charges could not be "proven true."

Now the summer soldiers and sunshine spinmeisters of his White House are demanding repeated repentance and the upward calibration of contrition so that at least the Democratic base will forgive.

Stick with the defense

But faked remorse demeans the office and earns no absolution. Let Clinton stay Clinton. Let him stick with his "indefensible" defense, play on the distaste of Americans at sustained self-abasement by their leader, and make clear that resignation is not an option no matter what embarrassment the Starr revelations bring.

Why this, from a pundit who has been railing for two years that Mr. Clinton stole the 1996 election with illegal Asian-connection money?

Some will say my perverse support is rooted in a desire for a president to be twisting in the wind during the fall campaign, damaging Democrats who fail to denounce him with poll-driven ferocity. Others may attribute it to a partisan concern that Al Gore, global-warming the presidential chair, would win election by acting boldly against Iraq and against North Korea. Still others will say opponents of resignation long for an inactivist executive branch, devoid of a spending agenda, too weak to deny Congress' tax cuts to the deserving nouveau riche.

Another ulterior motive: we may await the spectacle of a parade of wronged or ill-used women being savaged by Judiciary

Committee Democrats, with psychic wounds later dressed by a fatherly Hyde.

No, Virginia, your little friends are wrong, affected by the cynicism of a CNN-ical age.

Don't weaken the office

Mr. Clinton should stay right where he is because the people elect presidents directly for a fixed term of four years. Our decision cannot be reversed by a parliamentary vote of no confidence. Resigning -- even entertaining the idea on the excuse of the appearance of paralysis to the world -- weakens the office and undermines the system.

That system, as we have seen, can take a lot of punishment. If the 36 boxes containing two sets of evidence that Mr. Starr delivered Wednesday go beyond sexual misbehavior to show a pattern of abuse of power, the House will publish as much as decency permits and begin its impeachment inquiry at a dignified pace.

We'll have an undisturbed mid-term election (the United States held an orderly presidential election even during a civil war). The next Congress will hold its open hearings and do its duty. If Mr. Clinton remains in office, we will examine a new independent counsel's evidence of far greater abuse of power in the stolen '96 election.

Meanwhile, Mr. Clinton is the fully empowered president. He will light the national Christmas tree, give the State of the Union address and respond to national security threats. Just as in the armed forces, where the uniform and not the person rates the salute, Americans will continue to respect Mr. Clinton the president no matter what they think of Mr. Clinton the man.

After years of contemptuous stonewalling, followed by months of salacious lip-smacking, a sense of solemnity is settling over the capital. Impeachment is too profoundly political for politics.

Our elected officials and press and public can digest and act upon the Starr report while running the country and leading the world. Nobody flinches; nobody rushes; nobody quits.

William Safire is a New York Times columnist.

Pub Date: 9/11/98

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