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Bill Clinton's Moment of Truth

The president's unprecedented testimony to a grand jury today will help shape his legacy and the office.

In testimony that could rescue or destroy his presidency, Bill Clinton subjects himself today to prosecutor questioning the likes of which no United States president has ever had to endure - queries that bore into the most private aspects of the chief executive's personal behavior.

Details about private life were not what brought down Richard Nixon in Watergate, or blemished Ronald Reagan in the Iran-contra affair. Those cases rested on weightier affairs of state.

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But Mr. Clinton's personal indiscretions - alleged and admitted - have already damaged his agenda, the office of the presidency, and may well define his legacy. It's an ironic twist, considering he's shaped a "personal presidency" perhaps more than any modern chief executive - one in which he connects with unusual intimacy with Americans from all walks of life.

"I don't think there will ever be a future discussion of the Clinton administration without significant mention and analysis of scandal," says Charles Jones, a professor of politics at the University of Wisconsin.

Regardless of what the president tells grand jurors via closed-circuit TV from the White House map room, the criminal investigation in the Monica Lewinsky matter has taken a toll. Until this year, the president has been able to weather the political storms beating against the White House and still manage to push through meaningful issues, most of them with surprising assistance from Republicans in Congress. Ending "welfare as we know it," balancing the budget, expanding NATO - these are some of the key accomplishments of the Clinton presidency.

But his agenda stalled this winter, right after the Lewinsky matter surfaced. Education, child-care, patients' rights, and antitobacco legislation are among the moribund initiatives. "He began the year very strong in terms of issues," says Clinton's former chief of staff, Leon Panetta. "But as the year went on, he became less inclined to challenge Congress - partly because Congress dug in and partly because we're never sure whether he viewed the Republican Congress as the group that ultimately would have to judge him" on impeachment.

In addition, when the Lewinsky story broke, the media din drowned out much of the president's message on issues. To show he's still on the job, Clinton has stuck to his peripatetic, event-a-day schedule. He tries to hit three top issues every week.

Sometimes, like last week in California, his staff has to struggle to make him look as if he's about the nation's business. In San Bruno, in true campaign style, they turned a seeming nonevent into a headline. There was Clinton on national news, touting a "new" drinking-water regulation. In fact, the stricture was reported on in February and is already being implemented voluntarily in much of America.

Conceivably, the president's agenda could move again if he can get the Lewinsky matter quickly behind him, says Mr. Panetta. But even if he were to find some success on Capitol Hill, experts say permanent damage has been done to the presidency, through legal fights over the sexual allegations. Thanks to the Supreme Court decision on the Paula Jones case, future presidents can now be slapped with a civil suit while in office. Decisions from Chief Justice William Rehnquist indicate presidents can't count on attorney-client privilege for their government-paid lawyers, or expect Secret Service agents to keep confidential what they see and hear.

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Then there's the matter of simply besmirching the institution. "The public embarrassment is not just for him, it's for the presidency," says Jones. "In my judgment, he's already failed in that duty."

Still, despite the grim picture, no one doubts the president's prowess as a political Houdini. He has repeatedly survived crises that would have sunk politicians of lesser skill. Indeed, overcoming adversity is one of his most enduring characteristics. It is epitomized perhaps in a little prayer his mother kept: "Lord help me to remember that nothing is going to happen to me today that I can't handle."

As Panetta puts it: "First and foremost Clinton is a survivor. You have to bet that the odds are with him."

And, so far, so are the American people. According to an Aug. 7-8 Gallup poll, 65 percent of Americans believe the president cares about people like them, and 76 percent believe he can get things done. His approval ratings remain in the 60s.

THE support comes in part from that personal connection, the president's ability to personify moments of national triumph or tragedy, as was on display at Andrews Air Force Base last week. Tears flowing down his cheeks, the president grieved with families who had lost loved ones in the East Africa embassy bombings. He and the first lady shared about an hour with the families before the official ceremony began, paying particular attention to the children.

Public support also comes from the healthy economy, which the president never ceases to remind Americans of: the lowest jobless rate in 28 years, the smallest percentage of people on welfare in 29 years, the highest rate of home ownership.

Certainly, there is a lot the president would still like to do, like save Social Security. As long as the public supports him, he has a chance, say analysts. But sentiments could turn quickly - especially if Kenneth Starr turned up evidence that Clinton obstructed justice or if the economy slowed. In the end, the question may be whether Clinton has so mismanaged his personal life that his personal presidency breaks down. "You can't lose the trust of the public and maintain your ability to get stuff done," says Robert Dallek, a presidential historian.

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