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Bill Clinton took the oath, but exaltation is not his style. He has polled us and tested us and talked to us until he's hoarse and spent, and we know so much about him, right down to his choice of underwear, that he made it hard for us to hold him to a higher standard. So instead his allies defended what was worst in him by appealing to what is best in us. How could we not be generous and forgive him? Has he done anything that many of us have not done ourselves? Are these not private matters? Any gentleman would, of course, lie about his mistress. Judge not...He's one of us.
Ken Starr, while aware of Clinton's charm, held a different view of his conduct. Though he would never quite say so, he came to see the President as the elusive head of a vast criminal enterprise, who over the past four years of investigation would admit nothing, hold back evidence, block inquiry--all the while professing to cooperate in public while destroying his adversary's reputation in private. To the righteous defenders of law and order, Clinton's not one of us. He's one of them.
That conviction may explain but not excuse the choices Starr made. By pressing his case, he forced us to define morality down. We don't approve of adultery. We abhor perjury. But we also don't like political plots and traps that treat the law as an extension of politics by other means, that leave us wondering whether we damage the Constitution more by making the President pay or by letting him go.
We rely on prosecutors to exercise discretion. A novice at the job, Starr saw no virtue in restraint, without realizing how his zeal in pursuit of the President would alarm the jury that was called to judge them both. If nothing else, his legacy is plain: he will probably destroy the institution that created him. The independent-counsel statute, born of an impeachment drama 24 years ago, is likely to die in the throes of this one. We may well, as a result of his efforts, conclude that the government can't be trusted to investigate those in the government who can't be trusted.
Starr handed his sword to the lawmakers in Congress, where the Republicans' superior numbers protected them from having to offer superior arguments. Like Starr, they think that it is long past time for Clinton to be held accountable for his actions; like the voters, they have strong personal feelings about the President. Unfortunately for Clinton, the feelings on Capitol Hill can be poisonous. In a country where everyone assumes that all politicians lie, politicians themselves regard a certain kind of lying as a special kind of sin. A President who breaks his word makes it impossible to do business when the doors are closed and the hands are played and the hard trading begins. Time and again, Bill Clinton made solemn, cross-his-heart promises, about taxes he would support and concessions he would make and difficult positions he would defend, and once they let him have his way he stepped out and all but said, "Suckers!" and pushed them off the ledge.