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Sizing up the legacy of a scandal


By Frank Sesno
CNN Washington Bureau Chief

February 18, 1999
Web posted at: 10:08 a.m. EST (1508 GMT)

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

President Clinton apologized to the nation for his actions shortly after the Senate's acquittal   

In this story:

Erosions of institutions

The pundits and the public

Remnants and resilience

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In a way, it ended much as it began -- Bill Clinton out there alone, explaining, hoping his words by their sheer weight would change the subject. Move on. Renewal and reconciliation, he said.

The president, the Congress, the media and, most of all, the public appear happy to oblige. Call it the new ABM treaty -- Anything But Monica. If only it were that easy.

The independent counsel is still hard at work. Kenneth Starr was back before the grand jury Tuesday. He may have been pursuing the Kathleen Willey matter -- the former White House volunteer who says President Clinton tried to grope her.

Starr's aides say it may take two years or more to finish things up. There will be more indictments and trials. The president's own legal future remains uncertain. A final report will have to be written.

U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright is still working, too, out in Little Rock, Arkansas. She's now considering whether to charge Clinton with contempt of court related to the deposition in the Paula Jones case. The one in which he denied having a relationship with Monica Lewinsky. The deposition heard round the world.

Monica Lewinsky in her deposition for the Senate trial   

And there's more.

Monica is preparing to release her book.

Linda Tripp is considering writing one, too.

Lucianne Goldberg says she'd like a radio talk show.

So much for the ABM treaty.

These post-acquittal detonations should be less jarring, however. There will be no dramatic House hearings, or trial in the Senate, or round-the-clock stakeouts.

What we can look forward to instead is the slow but steady flow of the criminal justice system. It will not be subject to the impeachment-like pressures of politics, polls and pundits.

At this point, this much is clear: Virtually all the institutions that have come into contact with this scandal have been scarred.

Erosions of institutions

The presidency has been weakened. Executive privilege, attorney-client privilege, Secret Service privilege have all been eroded as a result of Lewinsky-related court challenges.

The privacy of the office has been pierced in ways that could only have been imagined in years past. The public's view of the presidency -- and the sanctity of the Oval Office -- has been distorted by scandal and deception.

The Congress has been factionalized. Democrats and Republicans, especially in the House, engaged in a nationally broadcast food fight, dressed up as impeachment hearings.

They were strictly partisan, at times outright snide. The exchanges reinforced a popular impression of Washington as an arena for political brawling rather than a capital of principle.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist   

The Senate may have been more dignified and deliberative; it certainly was quieter, thanks to the chief justice with the gold bars on his robe. But there isn't a senator anywhere who claims this was the institution's proudest moment.

About the best they can say is they got through it -- still standing, still talking, maybe with some enhanced relationships because of all the time they spent locked up together. But most of them feel just a little dirty.

The pundits and the public

Nor have the media escaped. We have been blamed for excesses in all our incarnations. Live and on tape. In picture and in print. On the editorial page and on the Internet.

The pundits fared especially poorly. The indignation and outrage on the chat-fests never really caught on with most of the public.

Maybe the beltway bunch should take some time off and do what we seem to do least: listen.

Finally, there is the public -- subjected to 13 months of inescapable scandal, screaming from every television and computer and headline in the house, it seemed. Battered and badgered, the public made its mind up early but was forced to stay up late.

Linda Tripp on CNN's "Larry King Live"   

Now we worry that cynicism will run even deeper, that distrust in our leaders and our institutions will be even more the hallmark of our age. Voter turnout in 1998 was the lowest since 1942, when many voters were overseas fighting in World War II.

Remnants and resilience

But wait. Optimism is not altogether an endangered species.

The republic has endured scandals and crises in the past. This is the United States of Resilience, after all.

The founders of this country had a few good ideas, and an elastic constitution, with powers checked and separate, was the best of all.

So, what to make of all this?

We made it. But there's more to come.

Our institutions were damaged. But they will recover.

We ratified the ABM treaty. But even if we change the subject, scandal has touched us all.

y: Washington correspondents take stock of impeachment trial-- January 29, 1999

y: CNN's Candy Crowley on whether scandal bogging down Congress-- October 2, 1998

y: CNN's Charles Bierbauer finds Constitution mum on sexual peccadilloes

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