. . . but censure is the way out of this mess

September 22, 1998|By Trudy Rubin

WE HAVE been taken hostage by independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report.

Not just us. The whole world, too.

While the global economy sickens and real terrorists rejoice, the House Judiciary Committee homes in on the president's sex life. We could be talking months of hearings in the House of Representatives, more witnesses, an ugly public circus -- before any decision on impeachment. The nation's capital obsessing over tabloid trash.

Meanwhile, the White House will remain paralyzed as Asia, Russia and the Latins slip further into economic turmoil. And that turmoil won't spare us. Congress fiddles while the world burns.

If legislators doubt there is a troubled world beyond the Beltway, they should read the foreign press. From Asia to Europe, newspapers are struggling to grasp how sex and cover-up could cripple the world's most powerful leader. Foreign heads of state are clearly terrified that America is heading for an orgy of self-destruction.

Foreign views

Le Monde, the most restrained of the French media, wrote: "On Sept. 11, the United States and, with it, the whole world had a nightmare. By the magic of the Internet, the four corners of our universe were turned into a planetary audience, and we all became Peeping Toms by the choice of the American Congress." Le Monde called the mood in Washington "a new McCarthyism, which has replaced the panicky fear of Communism with the dread of sexuality."

"I honestly don't understand the Americans," Italian industrialist Umberto Agnelli told the Italian media, pondering how the Starr report could sink U.S. global responsibilities.

"A weakened presidency, its energy to deal with global issues sapped, is bad news for the world," worried the Singapore

Straits Times.

The Japanese daily Asahi said the United States needed strong leadership now because of the Asian crisis, and the roiling U.S. stock market. You could feel German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's frayed nerves when he told reporters: "It is of the utmost lTC importance that the only world power can fully live up to its duties. There are problems everywhere."

There is a way out -- a way to rescue all of us. But first, our leaders in Congress need to reset their priorities. There are more pressing issues than what the president did with Monica Lewinsky. Despite its lewd detail, Starr's report has nothing new: Yes, the president lied about having extramarital sex.

I think much of the American public grasps this. That is why the major polls show that a strong majority still opposes the president's resignation or impeachment. This does not reflect a lack of public morality; it does mean the public thinks Mr. Starr had political motives.

Most Americans never wanted to read this stuff, and they never should have had to. Three years of a failed Whitewater investigation led Mr. Starr to pursue a last-ditch effort to nail the president on a technicality. Mr. Starr asked questions that should never have been asked of a president and told us things we didn't want or need to know.

Minister's son

Now we are stuck with this prurient volume. The minister's son has achieved his main objective: The president has been humiliated for the sad, reckless sins of his personal life.

What public interest can be served by pursuing this matter further? The Starr report is not grounds for impeachment. These low crimes and misdemeanors -- at worst, perjury about pathetic sex acts -- cannot be what the Founding Fathers had in mind.

Nor will Republicans dare to go for impeachment: Too many of them are too vulnerable. In the last few weeks, three House conservatives who vilified the president for betraying family values have seen their own failings emblazoned in the media. One fathered a child out of wedlock, another was twice divorced, a third had a long affair with a married man.

There is, as mentioned, a way out. Again, the public is ahead of the pols. Polls indicate that citizens would like to see the president censured by Congress. That would convey public distaste for his personal conduct while avoiding the spectacle of further partisan hearings.

The president would be chastised; his domestic agenda buried. Yet I believe he could still function as a leader in the global crises we will face in the next two years.

But censure requires Congress to put the country's agenda above partisan politics. Nothing doing, says Scott Reed, former Republican Party executive director: "For them [the Democrats], censure is the easy way out." But what about the rest of us -- in America and in the world?

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Pub Date: 9/22/98

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