Dumb end for a smart man


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton must now know how it felt to be captain of the Titanic, standing lonely and desolate on the bridge of his mighty ship on a black April night as it began its relentless descent to the floor of the frigid Atlantic.

The captain had two options: He could go down with the great vessel or plunge into the freezing ocean. Either way, doom was his destiny.

Mr. Clinton has three options: He can suffer through an impeachment process with the expectation that the Republican-controlled Senate would convict him and cast him out of the White House. He can endure the humiliation of congressional censure and serve out his term with his authority and prestige sharply diminished. He can resign as did Richard Nixon.

No matter which option he takes, his presidency -- like the life of the Titanic captain -- would appear doomed. It is hard to believe that the "comeback kid" has yet another political reincarnation in his repertoire.

Despite many achievements and good works, Mr. Clinton will be remembered by future generations for the scandal that decimated his presidency.

After the November elections, he almost certainly will face larger and more assertive Republican majorities in the House and Senate and, therefore, will find it far more difficult to govern.

Political rumblings

Bipartisan leaders of the House, led by Speaker Newt Gingrich and Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, vowed last week to keep politics out of the impeachment process. But politics already has begun to run amuck on Capitol Hill.

A number of members of Congress, along with some Republicans who aspire to the presidency in 2000, already have decreed that the president is guilty and that he must either resign or be impeached.

Almost anything Mr. Clinton does in foreign affairs will be suspect. Should he find it necessary to resort to military action against Iraq, North Korea or some other outlaw nation, critics will brand his action as a cynical effort to shift emphasis away from his domestic troubles.

Abandoned by old Democratic shipmates, attacked by Republican foes, diminished by his belated confession of immoral and improper conduct, engulfed in a mood of depression, the president knows that peril lies ahead when Congress and the public digest independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr's indictment of the president's conduct.

The self-inflicted tragedy of the 42nd president of the United States is now reaching its wrenching denouement. It is a somber drama that in centuries past might have been written by Sophocles, Shakespeare or Ibsen. In this century, it might have come from the typewriter of Eugene O'Neill or Arthur Miller.

It is the sad tale of what might have been, of hope, opportunity and potential lost. It focuses on a personable, extremely bright man who wanted to be a great president but was victimized by his own weaknesses and his own low moral and ethical standards.

In Act One, we watched the charming young governor of Arkansas seeking erratically to come to grips with the powers of the presidency. He struggled with foreign policy decisions in Somalia, Bosnia and Haiti. In a period of unparalleled prosperity, he tried to install a massive health care plan reminiscent of government reforms adopted in the darkest days of the Great Depression.

We learned something of his character and his grasp of responsibility from revelations about Whitewater, the mishandling of the White House travel office and the transfer to the presidential mansion of hundreds of FBI files on individuals who had served in the Reagan and Bush administrations.

But we also learned after the Republican triumph in 1994 that he is a man of remarkable resilience, who is brilliant at converting defeat into victory.

Comeback kid

When the curtain fell on Act One, Mr. Clinton had staged a sensational comeback and won a stunning re-election victory in 1996 over one of the most formidable Republicans of this era, Bob Dole.

Act Two introduced us to Monica Lewinsky and a sordid episode that totally overshadowed his achievements in other areas. But during that period, he signed into law the first balanced budget ++ in 30 years, helped impose a cease-fire in Bosnia and obtained a peace agreement in Northern Ireland, and fought valiantly for improved education and health care, a more pristine environment, better race relations, the protection of Social Security and Medicare and, of course, a surging economy.

As Act Two ended, Mr. Clinton participated in two totally disparate events abroad.

In Moscow, he and Boris Yeltsin staged a pathetic charade which was billed as a Russo-American summit. In reality, it was possibly the last meeting between two lame ducks who may soon be forced from office.

In Russia, it is the economy that is disintegrating; in America, it is Mr. Clinton's presidency.

From Moscow, Mr. Clinton then flew to Ireland, where he was greeted like a combination of Saint Patrick and Saint George. When he urged the Irish to hold fast to the peace agreement signed by Catholics and Protestants on Good Friday, the adoring crowd demonstrated its agreement with a resounding volley of cheers.

Now we have entered Act Three and the Clinton tragedy is moving into its final phase. The basic architect of the destruction of the Clinton presidency is Mr. Clinton himself.

It is he who failed to demonstrate his understanding that a president must adhere to high moral and ethical standards because to millions and millions of people in this country and around the world, he is the living personification of America.

Robert E. Thompson is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers.

Pub Date: 9/11/98

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