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"Three words he fears most in the English language: Tell the truth."

-- Dan Quayle, talking about Bill Clinton, vice presidential debate, Oct. 13, 1992

The most likely outcome of this sordid mess? A Senate trial for William Jefferson Clinton, presided over by the chief justice of the Supreme Court. A powdered-wig moment of high constitutional solemnity reduced to the base and bathetic, as is most everything touched by this president.

Horrible as it would be, it would also be strangely fitting. At the very end of Clinton's political career, the nation will be asking itself the question it should have asked at the very beginning: Is this man fit to be president?

To be fair, this is precisely the question the much-maligned Dan Quayle raised in his 1992 vice presidential debate with Al Gore. Poor Quayle. He couldn't spell potato, but he sure had Clinton pegged. With monomaniacal intensity he kept repeating -- five times, seven if you allow variations -- "Bill Clinton has trouble telling the truth."

Now Congress will have to decide. Everyone knows that it would be best for the Democrats, for the country, for national sanity if Clinton resigned. But that is less likely today than it was just a week ago. Once again, Clinton can thank his enemies.

Once again, Republicans have earned the title of the stupid party. They thought they would score a great victory by releasing the Clinton tapes and 3,183 pages of supporting documents. Did any of them stop to think that, given Ken Starr's passion to bring down Clinton, he would have culled the most damning evidence for use in his report, and left the stuff that might dilute his charges to the appendices? Indeed, Clinton's supporters now point to a quote of Monica only paraphrased in the Starr report -- "no one ever asked me to lie" -- and triumphantly claim it is exculpatory.

This is, of course, nonsense. No one ever thought Clinton stupid enough to directly tell anyone to lie. He never told Gennifer Flowers or Monica Lewinsky or Betty Currie to lie. Clinton does not tell people to lie. He just encourages them to lie. He just invites them to lie.

The question for the tapes, therefore, was not whether Clinton lied but how he looked while doing so. Answer: very good. Smooth as ever, unctuous where required, remorseful on cue, indignant when given the opening. True, if you parse his testimony, you find half a dozen instances of obvious perjury. But the parsing had already been done in the Starr report. What the tapes added was Clinton's demeanor, which was winning.

Clinton's lifeline, his polls, are, if anything, strengthened. But not only did the Republicans thus hand Clinton a PR win. They gratuitously handed the Democrats an issue. The Starr report had reduced Democrats to stunned silence. What could one possibly say? The tapes gave Barney Frank something to talk about: unfairness, a k a partisanship.

To be sure, the Democratic argument that releasing the tapes was unfair is bogus, however usefully diversionary it is. Democrats have been saying for weeks that, while the president acted indefensibly, we should listen to "the wisdom of the American people," to quote Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who "know better, apparently, than the politicians how disruptive it would be to impeach or have a president resign."

The Democrats, in other words, have been arguing that the considered opinion of the American people should be crucial, decisive perhaps, in deciding the fate of this president. Yet that same public, they argued simultaneously, was to be denied the right to view the single most important piece of evidence about the single most important charge, lying before a federal grand jury.

Lucky for the Democrats, it wasn't, and the Clinton death spiral is halted, at least for now. A rapid denouement leading to resignation is no longer in the cards. There is no end in sight. The nation cringes.

So we march on to impeachment and trial. MSNBC quotes a White House source saying that not even "a delegation made up of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost" could convince the president to step down. OK, but what about Lieberman, Moynihan and Daschle?

Washington Post Writers Group

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