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Many Americans use scandal to reexamine their views of morality.

As much as they hate hearing about the Bill & Monica affair, Americans are using the historic episode and its impeachment ramifications as a frame through which to examine their own - and their country's - standards of morality.

Some say President Clinton's apparent escape from ouster just proves that our moral compass has spun away from the true North traditionally set by religious teaching.

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Others contend that the whole thing really is about hypocrisy and political vengeance - viewed by many Americans as worse than the sexual misconduct to which Mr. Clinton has admitted. And some observers see it in the context of what has become a "deconstructionist view of reality," as author Neal Gabler puts it - one in which there is no objective truth.

"Could it be that in this moment of global, national, and personal introspection, the inquiry into the words and actions of our president is giving us a greater opportunity to question our own moral fiber?" asks Armstrong Williams, a columnist and broadcaster who has worked for US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and television personality Oprah Winfrey.

Much of the eloquence here comes not from the president's attackers in Congress or his battalion of White House defenders (or, for that matter, from the Sunday morning TV or all-Monica talk-radio shows) but from beyond the Beltway.

Letters to the editor

Out here, thoughtful, earnest Americans are using that old, old medium - letters to the editor of their local newspaper - to express their beliefs and feelings about the moral context of today's unprecedented political events. This includes not only Clinton's difficulties, but also the social and political patterns of the past 30 years.

"The impeachment trial of President Clinton is not about Monica, witness tampering, obstruction of justice, lying, and sex. The issue here is about the degradation of American society," Daniel Farey of Central Point, Ore., wrote this week to the Mail Tribune newspaper in nearby Medford. "Bill and Monica merely reflect the current amoral values of our society.... No one is willing to take responsibility for the consequences incurred by their actions."

Another letter in the Press Journal in Vero Beach, Fla. reads: "People no longer make love, they have sex; hence, one out of three babies is born out of wedlock, and in some sectors of the country, that figure is a shameful four in five," writes Frances Steffens. "Shame on us."

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On the other hand, asks Robert Lazenby in a letter to editor in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, "Am I the only person getting tired of people, usually ardent Clinton-haters, decrying the loss of this country's 'moral compass' because our president had an affair and lied about it?

"Where were they during Iran-contra, when our government sold weapons to our enemies illegally and lied about it?" asks Mr. Lazenby. "What about our active support of vicious right-wing governments in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and the Philippines that employed death squads?"

"I don't think what President Clinton did was right, and I haven't met anybody who thinks it was," adds Lazenby. "But in perspective, what is more obscene?... All I would like to see is a little consistency in the reasoning of our vocal moralists."

Lack of outrage

One such vocal moralist is former US Education secretary and drug czar William Bennett, who declared in his recent book titled "The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals," that "if the arguments made in defense of Bill Clinton become the coin of the public realm, we have committed an unthinking act of moral and intellectual disarmament."

Just because most Americans opposed the effort to remove Clinton from office, does it mean the country now faces a "moral and spiritual crisis that threatens the very foundation of our free society," as potential GOP presidential candidate Steve Forbes suggested at a Christian Coalition gathering in New Hampshire last weekend?

There is, in fact, plenty of evidence to show that Americans are a moral people.

Violent crime is down. People are less likely to abuse alcohol and other drugs than they were 25 years ago. They are more likely to give to charity or do volunteer work. And with very few exceptions (and despite the "sexual revolution" of the 1960s and '70s), they remain faithful in marriage.

"The best estimates are that about 3 to 4 percent of currently married people have a sexual partner besides their spouse in a given year and about 15 to 17 percent of ever-married people have had a sexual partner other than their spouse while married," reports the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

God as moral compass

Americans also are just as likely to believe in God and to attend church as they were several generations ago. "In 50 years the nation's social order has undergone rapid and profound transformations with little effect on measures of personal faith," reports the Gallup polling organization.

If anything, Americans are becoming more concerned about moral and ethical issues. The Center for Gender Equality reported last week a "significant shift" in the attitude of American women toward religion and politics.

Among the center's findings: "Seventy-five percent of US women now say religion is very important in their lives, up from 69 percent two years ago.... Half of women now say it would be better for politicians to be guided by religious values [46 percent], while an equal number [46 percent] say religion and politics shouldn't mix.

"This is a significant shift from just six years ago, when women were twice as likely to think religion and politics should not mix [63 percent] as to hold the alternative view [32 percent]."

Those who conducted the survey see a connection with today's events in Washington.

"When other issues are off-kilter - the national debate on the behavior of the national leadership that's going on - people may decide to return to a more moral footing than the national leadership," said Faye Wattleton, president of the center, based in New York.

Pragmatic view

At the same time, according to research done by Gallup, Americans often tend to take a pragmatic view of sexual misconduct as it relates to the need for strong moral leadership.

They are more concerned about whether a presidential candidate is an alcoholic, has a gambling problem, uses drugs, or has a pattern of not paying debts.

Then, too, there is a sense that the kind of transgressions that Clinton now admits to - having an affair and lying about it - are no doubt wrong but also forgivable (though his critics would say that lying under oath and obstructing justice are serious offenses).

Many Americans, in other words, apparently agree with potential presidential candidate Elizabeth Hanford Dole, who addressed the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce in New Hampshire this week: "In my church, I learned to serve rather than stand in judgment."

As the impeachment story winds down, it's also clear that many Americans are taking this opportunity "to question our own moral fiber," as Armstrong Williams puts it.

"It's time to gather our children, spouses, friends, and neighbors to discuss what this story is really about," wrote Seth Eisenberg of Pembroke Pines, Fla., whose letter recently ran in the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale.

"It's time for each of us to take personal responsibility to learn why love and marriage fails, and how to make it work," Mr. Eisenberg's letter continued. "It's about realizing that with one finger pointing at the president, the other three are pointing at each of us."

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