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The president and his mistakes

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Years after the Civil War, Southern General Edward Porter Alexander reflected on decisions made early in his life. "I did not then as fully realize, as I now do, how inexorable are the consequences of mistakes," he said, "that sins may be repented of, and, we hope, forgiven, but mistakes laugh at repentance and go on piling up the consequences."

President Bill Clinton has asked the nation and the people he wronged for forgiveness. He made an eloquent and impassioned speech to that effect Friday morning at a prayer breakfast, and Americans ought to be willing to oblige him. But the mistakes he made are piling up consequences rather rapidly these days, like snowballs careening down a hillside, and there doesn't appear to be much the president can do to stop them.The accusations of perjury and obstruction of justice outlined in Kenneth Starr's report are serious, indeed. More than any other person in public office, the president must be a person of virtue and a person who upholds and obeys the law. The oath of the office contains the promise to "faithfully execute" the office and to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution..." The office, above all, is one of trust and honor.

Whether the president violated that trust ought to be the focus of deliberations in the House of Representatives. The accusations that he perjured himself, no matter how trivial some may view the matter at hand, are of central importance in making that determination.

The framers of the Constitution devoted great debate to the concept of impeachment before deciding to include it in the document. James Madison saw impeachment as essential because the "loss of capacity or corruption (on the part of the president)" might very well "be fatal to the Republic."

The deliberations occupying the House at the moment can hardly be considered a constitutional crisis, as some are saying. They are instead an example of the Constitution at work. They are necessitated by the Constitution.

President Clinton has asked for forgiveness, and he ought to be granted that request freely by each American. But Congress must decide whether his mistakes have piled up enough consequences to disqualify him from holding office - and those are two completely separate considerations.