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Gore should exploit Clinton

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Al Gore may have given the speech of his life accepting his party's nomination last week. But he avoided mentioning the elephant in the room: the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.

Gore seems to be running away from this fact as fast as he can. He must think that it's nothing but a loser for him. But this is an issue he should exploit, albeit artfully and with tact.

For a lesson in such implied criticism, Gore should study the Republicans. They have mastered the art of talking about impeachment — without talking about impeachment. At their convention in Philadelphia, the Republicans never once mentioned the word. But it was there in code. "After all of the shouting and all of the scandal," Gov. George W. Bush said in his acceptance speech, "we can begin again."

Bush and the other Republicans repeatedly reminded viewers of Clinton's behavior, without once mentioning the other half of the equation — the House impeachment gang of Henry Hyde, Bob Barr, Asa Hutchinson and others. These congressmen attended their party's convention, but television viewers never saw so much as their shadows.

And Bush, knowing that the harshness of the impeachment drive had turned off a vast majority of Americans, wanted it known that he and Dick Cheney, his running mate, have had nothing to do with the partisanship in Washington.

Gore now needs to use the issue of impeachment to his advantage. Selecting Joseph Lieberman as his running mate helps distance him from Clinton, since the senator strongly criticized the president at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. And Gore, in his acceptance speech, further implied that he would never sully the Oval Office. "I will work for you every day," he said, "and I will never let you down."

But separating himself from Clinton is only half the equation. Gore (or his surrogates) must gently remind voters about the fierceness and the arrogance with which both Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel, and the House Republicans pursued the president.

Such a reminder, made implicitly rather than openly, would in no way violate Gore's pledge to run a positive campaign. After all, if Bush can tar Gore with Clinton's private sins and his efforts to conceal them, then Gore can fairly remind voters about the public sins of the House Republicans.

For partisan gain, they refused to heed the people's desire to move beyond the scandal, and they recklessly endangered the Constitution.

The impeachment of Clinton is arguably the most important and traumatic political event of the past two decades. It is simply a disservice to voters for Democrats to let the Republicans get away with their not-so-veiled attacks.

Sean Wilentz is a professor of history and director of the program in American studies at Princeton University.