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Acquittal won't erase the president's shame


I KEEP hearing people complain that President Clinton is "getting away with it."

Word is, he's about to be -- may already have been, by the time you read this -- acquitted. For those who are still nursing irresolvable outrage over his actions, the word sticks sideways in the throat. They can't fathom how a president can do what this one has done and escape punishment.

Me, I think they're just looking for punishment in all the wrong places.

That's not a defense of the man. It's my belief that a smarter president would never have lied to the American public and a more honorable one would have resigned the day the lie was revealed.

But impeachment is something else. It has always seemed doubtful that Mr. Clinton's misdeeds rose to the level of that constitutional remedy. And it's rather ominous to think that a partisan prosecutorial team could or would remove from office a president who still enjoys the overwhelming support of the electorate.

Problem is, what should have been a dignified process to determine the best course for the country long ago devolved into something else entirely. Some months back, a political cartoonist captured that something else in a drawing that pictured special prosecutor Kenneth Starr as Elmer Fudd, testifying about his futile chase after that "wascally wabbit," the president. And there's something about what the cartoon says that sticks and, indeed, seems to apply to a greater or lesser degree to all of the House "managers" who have made it their business to nail Mr. Clinton's squirmy hide to the wall.

Partisan politics

In a word, the guy drives his enemies crazy. By his uncanny knack for landing on his feet and his amazing ability to flourish when common sense says he can't, the president frustrates his opponents, tempts them into gambits they would not otherwise consider, induces them to continue the chase far past the point of diminishing returns.

Which is, I think, what this long and fruitless impeachment crusade comes down to. Not some high-minded attempt to protect the country and validate the Constitution. It's long been apparent to me that those concerns were subordinate to a single-minded need to get this maddening man.

If they'd been paying attention, they'd have realized that Mr. Clinton was gotten a long time ago. Heck, that he got himself.

Consider: He splattered black marks on his legacy. He revealed himself plainly and explicitly as a liar and a cheat. He humiliated himself more widely and profoundly than anybody -- ever.

It is not an inconsiderable punishment that he now has to live with those things. To think otherwise is to misunderstand the nature of the presidency. These men play not simply to us, but to the verdict of history. Even more so with this particular president, who is said to be obsessed with his legacy.

Well here's the news flash: This scandal will always be with him, always define him. Always. If tomorrow's headline was that Mr. Clinton had brought lasting peace to the Middle East, ensured budget surpluses for the next century and found a cure for cancer, Monica Lewinsky's name would still appear before the third paragraph of the story.

Nixon's legacy

One thinks of poor old Richard Nixon, who lived for 20 years after leaving the White House and spent every minute of it on a mission of redemption, trying to clean from his presidency the stain of the scandal that forced him out of office. Yet when he died, the stain remained, redemption was still incomplete.

It may be, for all intents and purposes, the only effective way a president can be punished -- to stand diminished before the judgment of history. And Mr. Clinton now does. So the president's acquittal -- if indeed, that's what it is -- should not be cause for celebration at the White House or recrimination at the Capitol. Both reactions belie a truth that should be plain.

Mr. Clinton didn't get away with anything.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His e-mail address:

Pub Date: 2/12/99

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