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THE REAL IMPEACHMENT MENACE

Special prosecutor Kenneth Starr's testimony before the House Judiciary Committee failed to raise the now-slim odds that President Clinton will be impeached.

The fact is, as Starr swatted at the softball questions lobbed to him by the Republicans -- and as he filibustered when cornered by evidence of his own abuses -- he made millions of Americans more aware of the absurdity of trying to oust a twice-elected president on charges of perjury or not upholding "the rule of law" in the wake of a sex scandal.

It became obvious that another prosecutor as zealous as Starr could indict Starr himself on charges of lying under oath before the Judiciary Committee. Starr kept saying that his agents did not try in their first hotel encounter with Monica Lewinsky to get her to wear a wire and record what they hoped would be incriminating conversations with President Clinton, his friend Vernon Jordan, or his secretary Betty Currie. But the president's lawyer, David E. Kendall, confronted Starr with FBI documents showing that Lewinsky was in fact pressured to wear a wire.

The flustered and suddenly indignant Starr clearly was lying. His agents and aides know it, and that as much as anything may be the real reason why his "ethics" adviser, Samuel Dash, resigned the day after the hearings.

No one is likely to try to prosecute Starr for perjury, but his testimony makes it clear that he is as adept at fudging the truth, failing to recall things that put him in a bad light and misleading people as Clinton has been since the revelation of his immoral, almost idiotic affair with a sexually aggressive former White House intern.

Americans who watched when Starr squirmed know that he was lying when he denied that he or his staff made leaks that were designed to convict Clinton in the court of public opinion. What the American people are left with is a decision whether Clinton or Starr represents the greater threat to their well-being. Most people see that Clinton engaged in atrocious behavior and that he lied to try to hide it. But rather than see him as some grave threat who ought to be dragged out of office and out of their lives, they look at the totality of his impact and see him as a benefit. So they say that what he did with Lewinsky and his efforts to conceal it do not justify impeachment.

On the other hand, they look at some of the things Starr has done and tried to excuse as "accepted prosecutorial practices" and see some serious threats to the liberties and constitutional rights of all Americans. Thus, most Americans would sooner be done with Starr and his endless probes than with this president, who on the whole has served them very well.

But the painful truth, revealed starkly during Starr's testimony, is that the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee are so fanatically determined to "get" Clinton that they don't give a damn what the American people want. So they will put the country through a wrenching political ordeal and probably vote out articles of impeachment. The full House will go through a searing debate before failing to approve the articles and a Senate trial.

Clinton's presidency will be saved because the people who failed to swallow the poison in Starr's leaks and his vulgar referral to Congress also refused to be fooled by his bespectacled, professorial look and his tinny voice when he postured as investigator, witness, grand jury and chief moralizer during his Judiciary Committee testimony.

But saving Clinton is not enough. We must not forget the many people who have lost their jobs, had their careers ruined and otherwise been damaged severely in this political madness. We must never again give any prosecutor such free rein to conduct a collection of investigations that run on for four or five years at such terrible cost in money and human ruin.

That does not mean there will not be a need for someone outside an administration to probe the alleged misdeeds of that administration. It does mean that some genuine safeguards must be put into any extension of the independent counsel law.

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