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MISSTEPS OF THE PAST SEEM ALMOST LAUGHABLE IN TODAY'S ENVIRONMENT

One way to get a feel for the future is to look at where you've been.

Humorist James Thurber tried turning history upside down in an article for Scribner's Magazine in the 1930s.

Thurber wondered what would have happened to the country if Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had been drunk at the ceremony ending the Civil war and had mistakenly surrendered to Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy, instead of the other way around.

The Clinton impeachment trial got me thinking in the same way about many of the central figures in the political tragedies (or comedies) of the last 25 years.

Were they the villains they were made out to be, or were they victims of a system devoid of love, forgiveness and a sense of "proportionality," a favorite term of Clinton's defenders.

Take former Sen. John Tower. Please!

Texas Republican Tower, President Bush's 1991 nominee for secretary of defense, was defeated in a Democratic-controlled Senate after stories circulated about his pinching girls and grabbing the knees of female partners at lunch.

If Tower had been nominated after President Clinton's impeachment trial, instead of eight years before, wouldn't Tower have been confirmed? After all, Tower's shortcomings were "only about sex" and had nothing to do with national security.

The infractions of Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., likewise were "only about sex." He had allegedly seized nearly two dozen women and forced them into tongue-wrestling matches in his office.

As Clinton's liaison with Monica Lewinsky had nothing to do with the security of the state, Packwood's tilts had nothing to do with his duties as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which was studying the president's health-care plan.

The man who led the attack against Packwood in the Senate was Democratic Sen. Bob Byrd, W.Va. Would Byrd have had the cheek to inveigh against Packwood if these events had come to light after Byrd grandly offered a motion to dismiss both articles of impeachment against President Clinton?

Then there was the relentless Washington Post investigation of President Bush's chief of staff, John Sununu. Would today's Post, I wonder, still pillory Sununu on its front page for using a White House car to go to a stamp show in New Jersey?

That, by the way, was the big scandal in the Bush administration.

The big sex imbroglios of the 1970s took down two powerful Democratic House chairmen. Rep. Wayne Hays of Ohio got caught employing as a clerk the comely Elizabeth Ray, a woman who couldn't type. Hays ran the administration of the House.

Ways and Means Chairman Wilbur Mills of Arkansas was found with an exotic dancer named Annabel Battistella, or "Fanne Fox," after an auto accident in downtown Washington.

These missteps would be laughed off in today's environment.

A much tougher call is Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Chappaquiddick. If Kennedy aides had the presence of mind to put out word that Mary Jo Kopechne was a wanton "stalker" and if Kennedy had confessed at a National Prayer Breakfast that he had "sinned," as President Clinton did, would the nation, in a spasm of absolution, have opened the gates of the White House to him?

Today's Democrats have mounted a wide-ranging defense of Clinton. Every hole has been plugged. To arouse America's rich lode of victim culture, Democrats are even cultivating popular pity for Monica Lewinsky.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts said Clinton was the victim of a kind of "entrapment." Sen. Bob Torricelli of New Jersey charged Clinton's accusers of a vendetta.

House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri reflexively led a delegation to a White House rally praising Clinton just after he was impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice.

In today's atmosphere, the ethics charges against House Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas; House Majority Whip Tony Coelho, D-Calif., and House Banking Chairman Freddie St. Germain, D-R.I., which wrecked their careers in the 1980s, might have been plowed under had these men understood the virtues of polling, focus groups and media herding, and most importantly, stubbornness as well as this president does.

The powerful cultural changes that have been brewing, or festering, since the 1960s are cascading down on the Capitol with dizzying power and velocity. Clinton didn't create this atmosphere. He is merely the first notable beneficiary of dramatic deviations in public attitudes about personal accountability and self-discipline.

So much so that seasoned men and women, decent people, seem to have forgotten what they said only a few weeks ago. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., complained loudly about the president's mendacity. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., speculated aloud that Clinton should be impeached. Moynihan and Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., both endorsed the speech made by Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., condemning the president's conduct.

Last week they dutifully rose and voted to dismiss the whole case against the president. If they explained these votes, they did it in whispers.

The old standards of official conduct and responsibility are gone. How the new rules are going to operate is anybody's guess.

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