A dirty job that must be done

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 January, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 January, 1999, 12:00am

Rightly, we talk about the importance of the rule of law in Hong Kong. So far, despite some jitters about cross-border cases, we have not had cause for concern. But to see what the rule of law really means, cast an eye on Washington this week.

This is the trial which hardly anybody wants but which has become unavoidable.

A weekend poll reported that 59 per cent of Americans wish the Senate to end the impeachment of Bill Clinton immediately, and that the president's approval rating has risen to 67 per cent.

Still, the senators will plough ahead. As one Sunday headline put it, 'It's a dirty business but the Senate had to do it'. Compared to the more unbuttoned House of Representatives, with its quota of dedicated men thirsting for Mr Clinton's blood, the upper house is a more dignified place. But the stories which it will provide for your newspapers and the airwaves will not be exactly decorous.

How did we get there, many have been asking themselves in the US capital. In other parts of the world, the astonishment at the plight of Mr Clinton has been evident at least since Kenneth Starr released his findings down to the last tacky detail.

The protocol and ceremony which accompanied the transfer of proceedings from the House to the Senate last week underline the fact that this is not a trial of the President's sexual behaviour, any more than Nixon's downfall was about the burglars breaking in at the Watergate.

But Mr Clinton cannot get away from the way he is perceived. Was it good or bad luck that new allegations on the sexual front surfaced just as the trial was starting? Good luck because they do not seem to stand up; bad luck because the fact that they were even entertained points yet again to the way this president is regarded.

But the real issue is put quite simply at the start of the accusations that 'William Jefferson Clinton willfully provided perjurious, false and misleading testimony to the grand jury' about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, in refusing to admit to false testimony in the Paula Jones lawsuit, in letting his attorney make false statements in that case, and in lying to aides about the Lewinsky relationship to try to influence their testimony.

Nobody except those for whom Mr Clinton's removal from office is an end in itself can expect anything good to come of this trial. That is why some people - including this newspaper - believed at the time of the Starr revelations that it would be best for America and the world if Mr Clinton made as graceful an exit from the scene as he could manage.

Instead, the President has hung on. That is in his nature. This is the greatest test of all for the champion Comeback Kid of our times.

By doing so, in the face of the Starr report and against the background of his own weasel-worded testimony earlier in the process, he has made it inevitable that the law must have its day - and at the highest level, befitting the stature of his office.

It does not matter what he and Ms Lewinsky did with a cigar in a corridor, or whether gifts were returned or whether the intern ended up thinking that the Big Creep in the White House had let her down. The opinion poll findings show that most Americans couldn't care much about the private behaviour of a man whom they never took for Saint Francis of Assisi. The revelations in the supermarket tabloids may be eagerly picked up by media around the world, but their sales have shown no signs of benefiting from the sleaze.

What does matter is that the highest elected official in the country may have broken the law.

The rule of law means that he must be tried. It is, in the end, as simple as that.