WASHINGTON -- All the hand-wringing over the constitutional questions involved in whether and how President Clinton should testify should not obscure a fundamental fact. This whole controversy is centered on an essentially trivial matter -- a sexual relationship between two consenting adults.
We are not dealing here, as was the case with Richard Nixon and Watergate, with an attempt by a president to subvert the Constitution and to use federal agencies to cover up a crime.
The question is simply whether Mr. Clinton and Monica Lewinsky had a sexual relationship and whether the president tried to persuade her to lie about it.
That being the case, the imperative should be to get the issue resolved once and for all and as quickly as possible. The case should no longer be allowed to continue the dislocations of the political and legal system that already have occurred.
The whole purpose of providing independent counsels to investigate high officials has been grotesquely bent out of shape. Never have so many lawyers spent so much time and money on an issue so insignificant.
The public understands all this. Opinion polls show consistently that most Americans believe there was a sexual relationship and that the president has lied about it. But they also show that most Americans consider this behavior to be predictable -- people do tend to lie about sex -- and not a reason for concern.
Nor does anyone familiar with the justice system believe Mr. Clinton is going to be charged with perjury on the basis of an affidavit he gave in a civil lawsuit, that of Paula Jones, that has been thrown out of court. And proving that anyone tried to suborn perjury is, by any reasonable standard, an extremely difficult case to make.
Meanwhile, however, both the operations of the government and the shape of the political dialogue are being transformed by the questions hanging over the White House.
Not quite status quo
The White House is insisting, of course, that it has been business as usual for the six months since the Ms. Lewinsky issue surfaced. And Mr. Clinton has made a great show of going about the public functions on his schedule, traveling both abroad and within the country and presiding over events designed to make political points.
But no one who understands how any White House functions imagines for an instant that the administration has not been affected by the distraction of Kenneth Starr's unrelenting legal campaign against the president.
The political effect is more difficult to measure. The one thing already clear is that Democrats have been denied a weapon they would like to use in the congressional campaign this fall -- Mr. Clinton's still-high approval ratings for his performance in office. No Democratic candidates are out there telling voters to support them so they can help Mr. Clinton finish the job he has been doing so well.
These candidates are well aware that if they embrace Clinton on his official performance, they will have to be prepared to deal with questions about what they think of his personal conduct. Up to now they have been able to say, on the rare occasions when the topic has been raised, that they were waiting for the facts in the case.
No defensive roles, please
More to the point, they don't want to have to defend the president if he chooses to ignore or legally contest the subpoena from Mr. Starr. The same polls that show the high approval numbers for Mr. Clinton also find that most Americans believe he must obey the subpoena.
If the reports on Ms. Lewinsky's story are accurate, Mr. Clinton has no easy way out. She is prepared to say there was a sexual relationship, which Mr. Clinton specifically denied last winter. If he sticks to that position, a classic he-said, she-said situation will emerge. If he changes his story, the president will confirm the widespread suspicion that he has been lying all along.
Neither is a happy result for the president. Whatever else he accomplishes, Mr. Clinton must face the likelihood that his legacy will be tainted.
That might not have been the case if he had acted to clear up the picture the moment the allegations arose last January.
Now both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Starr have reached a point at which they should cut their losses. The issue has been small potatoes all along, but it has been blown all out of proportion by months of legal and political maneuvering. The time has come for Mr. Clinton to tell his story and bring the nonsense to an end. Enough already.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.
Pub Date: 7/31/98