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THE NATION HAS BEEN PUNISHED ENOUGH

It occurred to me quite suddenly at lunch on Tuesday that President Clinton has been punished enough. And so have all the rest of us.

Someone asked me whether I thought the current charges against the president were true, and I said what most every other American would: "Yes."

Then someone else asked whether I thought he should be convicted by the Senate and thrown out of office, and I said what most every other American seems to be saying: "No."

"Then you must be for censure," another questioner said.

But I'm not for censure. I don't think it would serve any purpose at all except to trigger another endless quibble about wording. "I think he's been punished enough," I said, sure of myself for the first time in a while. More than enough.

Whether he shows it or not, Bill Clinton has been stripped of dignity and power. He bit the forbidden apple, a little crab apple it was, and his presidency was poisoned. He has lost the race presidents run, not against men but against a goddess called history.

Clinton can take and survive the shame; look at the way he performed in giving his State of the Union speech. But he cannot take the defeat. The man he wanted to be -- wanted to be remembered as -- has been defeated. That is punishment enough.

At this point, the Republican conservatives demanding the last full measure of revenge are punishing themselves. They have become the Party of Impeachment. There is no other way voters can see them next year. At this point, even some of their own must be seeing the Hyde and seekers as fanatics -- crazy people.

They have proved what they set out to prove, but that is all they have done. They cannot persuade the rest of us, including the hundred members of the U.S. Senate, that what Clinton has done is more than kind of disgusting.

The president cannot save himself from the judgment of history about his own judgment by calling on Sammy Sosa. But the Republicans cannot save themselves from a quicker judgment of election returns by sending out their best-looking people to respond to the president. Steve Largent and Jennifer Dunn may be serious people, but on Tuesday night they looked like Ken and Barbie, talking about gardening and taking the kids to soccer games. They were a pretty picture, poster folk of the politics of holier than thou, Bill Clinton.

I shouldn't blame them. We're all in this together. The national joke is the line that no one is paying attention. Right. I suppose that's why mail, calls and e-mail to members of Congress are up tenfold from normal times. The passions unleashed have no place better to go.

Write your representative and senator -- that's what they told us in civics class. There was this one last week to Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California: "I can't stand it, and I get angrier every day this goes on."

Me, too. We have to try to stop this. Get a public life again!

If I have seen the light, the reason was a short conversation on the morning before the State of the Union speech. After I gave a talk here about the press and the presidency, a well-dressed, middle-aged man came up to me and said: "You know there's one person getting away with this. Why is the press giving Chelsea Clinton a free pass?"

I thought he might be kidding. But he wasn't. He also gave no indication of whether he was for or against the president or his deeds. Seeing I was shocked by his question, he backed off a bit and said he meant the tabloids and all that. But, of course, there is not much difference between the worst and the best-intentioned reporting on scandal these days, is there?

We have lost our senses. All of us.

Universal Press Syndicate

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