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Clinton and Impeachment

Sometimes it is instructive to look back at the past in order to evaluate the present.

It was in April 1973 that the political leader who was so loved and respected within his party that he had been dubbed "Mr. Republican" - Sen. Barry Goldwater - spoke out on the growing Nixon scandal called Watergate.

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"The Watergate, the Watergate," he said. "It's beginning to be like the Teapot Dome. I mean, there's a smell to it. Let's get rid of the smell."

My memory is that Goldwater spoke more in sadness than in anger in that interview. For the first time he was expressing his views on the scandal and on President Nixon's "continuing silence" on the problems that were besetting him.

Here, as many observers of the Watergate episode have assessed these Goldwater words, was the first big turning point toward the end of Nixon as president. Before that, Nixon's stonewalling had been working for him. It was when Nixon's own party leaders began to believe that his apparent misdeeds were damaging their own political futures that Nixon's presidency began to cave in.

So it is that if - and only if - President Clinton's own party leaders begin to turn against him that his stay in office may really come into question. It will take a Daschle or a Gephardt, or maybe both and other top Democrats, to come out and say something along the lines of what Goldwater said to me that spring day: "When you find staunch, hard-working Republicans refusing to help the party, well, I can tell you we're having a helluva time selling tickets to the Republican gala dinner in May here in Washington. And it is because of Watergate."

As I view it today, it will take such a deterioration in the support of Clinton's own party leaders to open the doors to a real possibility of impeachment. Only if a number of Democratic members of Congress have turned away from Clinton - because they think his presence in the White House is endangering their jobs - will Congress seriously move to throw him out of office. The Republicans can't do it on their own. And, as of now, most Republicans seem content to let Clinton hang around as potentially damaged goods, rather than have Gore replace him.

Oh, yes, the Republicans could initiate the impeachment process - but with little hope that it would go anywhere. Indeed, the throwing out of the Paula Jones lawsuit against Clinton has had the effect of removing, at least for the time being, any stomach the Republican Congress has had for seeking to impeach the president.

But while Clinton very early on indicated he would explain the Monica Lewinsky incident - one that without a satisfactory explanation from the president leaves appearances of possible perjury and obstruction of justice on his part - he has completely ignored this promise.

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Oh, yes, he says his lawyers have vetoed this idea. Why, one must ask, would they keep the president from talking if he has an explanation that would clear up the matter? One might infer that this is a position that sometimes a guilty person will assume.

But no one is asking such questions, it seems - or no more than, at most, a small minority of the public.

Instead, polls show that most Americans are so satisfied with Clinton - and, particularly, the vibrant economy - that they don't care much what he may have done. They just want Ken Starr to get his probe over with and go home.

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