We, The Jury

Starr has forced Americans to reckon with him, their President and their values. No one knows how the conversation will end

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"There is substantial and credible information supporting the following eleven possible grounds for impeachment: 1. President Clinton lied under oath in his civil case when he denied a sexual affair, a sexual relationship, or sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky..."

You could almost hear the country go quiet as it started to turn the pages. After eight months of watching a grand jury at work, we've become one. Court is in session around the dining-room table, at work and at church and, ultimately, in the halls of Congress. For month after month as this story unfolded, the American people have shown their sense of fairness: pressed for their judgments by pollsters, they said, again and again, let's give him the benefit of the doubt until all the evidence is in. They know that juries are supposed to go slow, weigh the arguments and do justice, no matter how long it takes. When the defendant is the President and the charges without precedent, the ultimate test for him is no less a test of us.

And so on Friday, in the breathtaking opening arguments from both sides, the combatants placed before us a choice between core values: between privacy, which has become so fragile, and morality, which has become so debased. Kenneth Starr and Bill Clinton, hunter and quarry, one wielding his scorching flashlight, the other his anointed cigar: Which troubles people more? One prosecutor, unaccountable, brought the full force of the legal system to bear in probing private sexual behavior; one President, implacably evasive, drew on the full weaponry of his office simply to hold on to it. The verdicts the American people will render in the weeks to come are less legal judgments than moral and political ones about both sides, which is why the case finally arrived last week where it ultimately belongs: in the people's hands.

Holding those hands for dear life are members of Congress, who set off last weekend to their districts, trying to figure out where we are. They know that a majority of Americans have believed for months that the President was lying when he denied an affair, a failing that they have always distinguished from his conduct in office. But that may not have prepared voters for the experience of paging through the sad, smutty chronicle that Starr has provided in his effort to remind voters that this was no ordinary case of adultery, that the lies Clinton told came in front of a judge and jury. Many will throw down the text in disgust, both at what the President did with Monica Lewinsky and what Starr did to expose it.

Those who read on will be forced to make judgments. Of Starr, some have already concluded that he was carrying out his sworn duty in the face of a conspiracy to stop him; others argue all he proved in the end was his own willingness to humiliate the President and horrify the public with a report so gratuitously detailed and pornographic that it warranted warning stickers and a plain brown wrapper.

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