Disgrace, little more, is placed before nation Starr report Lurid, demeaning, and not enough, but it may not be counsel's last word.

September 14, 1998

PRESIDENT Clinton disgraced himself and harmed the nation by conducting an illicit affair .

He appears to have committed perjury, albeit in evidence that was not material in a lawsuit that lacked merit. An ordinary citizen in similar circumstances would not be in criminal difficulty.

The president, however, is not an ordinary citizen -- and his conduct merits investigation by the House Judiciary Committee and, possibly, censure.

But the Starr report does not come close to the standard for impeachment in the meaning of the Framers of the Constitution -- "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors" -- no matter how vigorously and graphically Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr presents his case.

Three previous discussions of impeachment -- the censure of President Andrew Jackson, the impeachment and acquittal of President Andrew Johnson, the failed investigation into Iran-contra during the Reagain presidency -- turned on struggles over policy between Congress and the president. The resignation of President Nixon concerned the perversion of security agencies for partisan warfare and criminal behavior against ideological adversaries and an election opponent.

Just because personal lapses have never figured in impeachment before does not mean they cannot come up now. Members of the House must interpret the Constitution for modern times just asthe Senate must, should this go to trial. But Congress should consider what it is doing to national public life in going down this road. Recent public confessions of adulterous affairs by three Republicans, two members of Congress and an Indiana state senator, are a hint of what's to come. Real public issues will vanish in the prurience. It will be politics by private detective.

Mr. Starr loaded his report with lurid detail to distract from what is omitted. There is nothing in his report about the Whitewater affair in Arkansas, the presidential removal of travel office workers or the wrongful presence in the White House of FBI files -- all matters that Mr. Starr was investigating. Those other investigations are still open. The grand jury is still meeting. As an attempt to strip the president of public respect, this report is successful. Mr. Starr may have more shoes to drop. If not, he has joined Mr. Clinton in disgracing the nation.

The most immediate gauge of the political impact of release of the report will be the November elections. In coming weeks and months, though, there will be another test: the degree to which members of both parties are able to set aside partisan differences as they work their way through the difficult issues raised by Mr. Starr's report.

Pub Date: 9/14/98

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