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Public is Clinton's moral abettor

The defining moment in every historic trial - the Dreyfus case, most notably, or the O.J. Simpson case - comes when it is no longer the defendant who is on trial but the public. We have now reached that point in the investigation of President Clinton.

Although he has not been formally charged with wrongdoing, the president is on trial - in the court of public opinion. By the same token, the public, too, is on trial, relentlessly analyzed by scores of pollsters.At first the public was discreet, professing to defer judgment until all the evidence was in. But with each revelation, more and more people have come to believe that the president is indeed guilty of sexual impropriety of some kind with "that woman," as he has referred to Monica Lewinsky.

At the same time, many insist that this judgment is not only premature but also irrelevant. Such accusations of affairs, they say, are private and have no bearing on the president's conduct as president - whereupon they proceed to bestow on him the highest approval ratings of his career.

In the United States - not France or Sweden, where people pride themselves on their "sophistication" - this verdict needs explaining.

One explanation is simple: The economy is booming, the people are content, and this is all that matters.

The difficulty is that other polls suggest people are more concerned about their moral condition than their material well-being: 75 percent say that the most important issue confronting us is "moral decay."

Or there is the political explanation, which applies particularly to women, who are among the president's most loyal defenders. They have been quick to pass judgment on other public men accused of sexual improprieties, but in this case they are tolerant of a president they consider a political ally - all the more because they are intolerant of a woman such as Paula Jones, whom they find socially uncongenial.

Still another explanation derives from polls showing that many Americans believe that all consensual sexual relations are private and therefore exempt from moral judgment.

This is the classic "Who is to say?" argument: Who is to say what is right or wrong, moral or immoral? Morality is a "personal affair," we are told - for everyone, including the president.

In such a state of moral relativism, the only certitude left is the law. What is important, people say, is not whether the president had an affair but whether he lied about it under oath. This alone makes him subject to public sanction and legal penalty.

Thus we confront the spectacle of one legislator after another refusing to answer the question, "If the president is proved to have had an affair with Monica Lewinsky, would you regard this as improper?" - "improper" being the current euphemism for "immoral."

The question, they protest, is hypothetical. They then retreat to the equally hypothetical but comfortable legal proposition that if Clinton is proved to have lied under oath, then the law should take its course.

But the law is a feeble surrogate for manners and morals. If the president is an ambiguous "role model" for young people, so are parents who pronounce morality to be a "personal affair," who pride themselves on being "nonjudgmental," who think it sophisticated and broad-minded to give the president a moral latitude that, one hopes - and surveys confirm - they themselves do not exercise.

Clinton has a good deal to answer for, not only for his behavior, if the accusations are substantiated, but in making the public his accomplice, putting it on trial and exposing its moral equivocations.

The president's legacy, some now say, will be the memory of a scandal-ridden administration. The public's legacy will be a further vulgarization and demoralization of society.