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In three days, President Clinton has again confused America, showing himself to be a determined, able and strong leader on one hand and a lying lecher on the other.

It's too early to be certain about the motivation behind the missile attacks on suspected terrorist facilities in Afghanistan and Sudan. A true-life parody of a movie parody, a facile misdirection to take everyone's mind off Clinton's grudgingly admitted sins? Or a well-thought-out, firm reply to our enemies, a surgical message without U.S. casualties?

In either case, what now? Kenneth Starr is certain to be unimpressed, and will press on with his jihad. And what will Congress do? Impeachment? Unless Starr can come up with something better than "improper" sex and the lies that always go with it, that's pretty unlikely. We've had lying lechers in the White House before. Sure, times have changed, but not enough for that.

The real determining factor here will be the temper of the American people. No Congress is going to impeach a president who has even a modicum of popularity. We're pretty disgusted with Clinton, but not so disgusted that we can ignore his accomplishments and abilities.

If he were an honorable man, of course, he'd resign. Despite his continued obfuscation and denial, there's no doubt he has lied both publicly to the American people, and under oath.

The claim that his statements were "legally true but misleading" is nonsense. The implied claim that since the lies concerned his personal sex life, they were somehow OK is even greater nonsense. This is not the '60s, and Clinton is very definitely not John F. Kennedy. The rules are different these days. You may lament that, but Clinton knew the rules very well when he got into the game.

But then, if he were an honorable man, he and we wouldn't be in this mess, would we? Honorable men do stupid things, too, but when they get caught, they admit it and take their punishment. And as honorable people all know, that punishment is invariably lighter and sooner finished with than the endless humiliation suffered by the dishonorable.

What honorable men do not do is put their wives out in front of the nation to lie for them, knowingly or unknowingly. They do not deceive their staff and friends, allowing them to risk their fortunes and their honor on that lie. They do not return disloyalty for loyalty. That's a lesson Clinton has never learned.

Even more disappointing, it begins to appear that his chief acolyte and hopeful successor, Vice President Al Gore hasn't absorbed it, either. More evidence is turning up that Gore has also been "misleading" us on his fund-raising activities for the last election. Gore would have us believe that he never knowingly violated federal campaign financing laws.

Now the New York Times has come up with a White House memo indicating, if not proving, that Gore did violate the law, massively and deliberately. Stand by for another special prosecutor, another long and expensive investigation, another series of humiliations, both for him and for the nation.

In six years at Clinton's shoulder, Gore seems to have learned the wrong lessons. He has been a good soldier, and even now remains the most loyal of Clinton's followers. But loyalty is not always a virtue, a friend of mine noted. "Participating in dysfunction that has no consequence, people begin to see short-term benefits," the friend observed.

Even a once-honorable man, steeped in the amoral hothouse of a Clinton White House and the intensity of a presidential campaign, can lose hold of his integrity. That's the worst disloyalty -- of a leader who corrupts his followers.

All of this does have its usefulness. It makes it easier to talk about morality and honesty with our kids. Look at the mess these brilliant and successful men are making of things, we can say. Look at what a few moments of selfish pleasure can cost, and at the damage lies do. Look at the pain they are causing, and the humiliation they are suffering.

That's a pretty good lesson. And maybe, next time around, we'll be a little more demanding of our candidates, a little more determined to select a man or woman not on the basis of their glib tongue or smooth personality, but on the decency and strength of their character. That might be the biggest contribution Clinton makes to his country.

King Features Syndicate

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