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Process, presidency intact - a nation's enduring strengths

It was a lonely and pathetic figure that Bill Clinton cut as he came out, his face cast in a penitential mask, the lower lip bitten in the familiar signal of emotion, to give a too-little, too-late apology to the American people after the Senate acquitted him last Friday.

There was no wife beside him. No daughter. None of the aides he had lied to about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, and who in turn had passed those lies on in his behalf. Just a solitary Clinton, at a microphone in the White House rose garden offering a few words expressing his profound sorrow "for what I said and did to trigger these events."

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Thus he resumed his presidency that is no longer a presidency; a figure who will go down in history as a man the Senate found not guilty on charges almost everyone believes he was guilt of.

Even as the Senate declined to remove him from office, its members heaped opprobrium upon him.

"The most accomplished, polished liar that we have ever had in the White House," said Utah's Republican Sen. Bob Bennett, who tried unsuccessfully to marshal a censure motion against Mr. Clinton.

And Mr. Bennett said that most of the Senate, Republican or Democrat, either in public or private, declared the president's behavior indefensible.

Both Clinton, and the country, would have been better off had the president done the honorable thing and resigned, rather than putting us all through the anguish, the millions of dollars spent, the friendships tattered, the loyalties betrayed, the vulgarizing of the Oval Office, that we have witnessed during the prosecutorial and impeachment process of the past year.

Had that happened, the president could have sought regeneration and renewal, and probably found genuine forgiveness.

But he put self before country and won a hollow victory that now leaves him with two years of a broken presidency that he will live out in shame and ignominy. It is doubtful that history will depict him in the noble manner for which he had so desperately yearned.

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As we look beyond this personal tragedy, what of the nation?

We cannot pretend that there are not some challenges in the immediate future.

The president is weakened and not trusted - even, as the polls indicate, by those people who were opposed to removing him from office. In the minds of voters there will always be an element of doubt as he asks them to trust him on Social Security, or when he cites the evidence for air strikes upon, or committing of American soldiers to, some faraway land.

As Senator Bennett said: "A president who has demonstrated a capacity to lie about anything, great or small, whether or not under oath, does threaten our liberties.

"We cannot be sure of anything he says. We cannot trust his word, whatever the issue. We will always be fearful of where that trait could take us."

But though this has been a sordid chapter in the history of the country, and though the protestations of bipartisanship in the next two years will be sorely tested, some enduring strengths have emerged.

The Constitution is intact, the democratic political process has survived.

Much of my journalistic career was spent covering wars and revolutions and coups in lands where democracy was little in evidence. The story was usually about power, and the quest therefore.

Often power was transferred, lost, orgained with the rattle of gunfire, the rumble of tanks, and bloodshed, rather than at the ballot box.

How inspiring it always was to return to a country so diverse as America, with so many factions and agendas, yet where power was challenged or transferred by civil process.

How cheering it is now to have seen a president challenged, fierce debate take place in the streets and halls of government, and yet a resolution arrived at peacefully and civilly.

There are other positives.

Though one president besmirched his office, the presidency survives. And in it, any future president will likely think carefully before repeating Clinton's errors.

The rule of law remains intact. That may seem a curious statement when the president so slickly avoided legal punishment.

BUT he was brought to trial. It has been reestablished that in America even a president is no more above the law than an ordinary citizen.

And if, as sometimes happens, a guilty man goes free, the disgrace that Clinton will bear for the rest of his life is far heavier than any criminal penalty would have been.

Finally the people.

It was suggested they couldn't stand the trauma of an impeachment trial. But they did and they're doing just fine. They'll survive the next two years, and that will give them a little time to reflect on the importance of character before they choose their next president.

*John Hughes was editor of the Monitor from 1970 to 1979. He is now the editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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