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Wasting a Presidency

By Mary McGrory
Sunday, April 5, 1998; Page C01

It's time for Bill Clinton to do something wonderful. Past time, really.

The luckiest man on the planet has once again escaped, without truth or consequences, from a mess of his own making. U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright, explaining her state's exceptionally high threshold for male chauvinist piggery, declared that while the alleged behavior was "boorish and offensive," once is not enough. Wright gave him another chance.

The president has been spared the terminal humiliation of being the first president in history to be put in the dock of a civil courtroom. The country has been spared, too. One less sworn account of the dialogue and interaction between Paula Jones and the then-governor of Arkansas in a Little Rock hotel room is a blessing to all. Who could not be grateful for the reduction in pond-scum news that has been so prevalent since Bill Clinton brought Monica Lewinsky into our lives? He owes us for those weeks in the swamp. We deserve a little time in the uplands.

April Fools' Day, which brought Clinton the amazing grace of Judge Wright's deliverance, should have suggested to him a radical change of subject in the national dialogue. He need only review the events that transpired here while he was visiting Africa to see how the second half of his second term could be infused with high purpose and themes worthy of his high office, not to mention his ever-soaring popularity. What is he saving it for?

He now has an incomparable opportunity to show himself as the friend of children he has always claimed to be. The next generation is being stalked. Big Tobacco still tells kids that it's cool and sexy to smoke. And children are in mortal danger from gunslingers, some of them their own age, as the recent killings in the president's home state horrifically demonstrated while he was gone.

The day the president got his reprieve, Capitol Hill presented dramatic scenes of how to bring about great changes in policies that affect the health of millions and the survival of the young. In the packed hearing room of the Hart Senate Office Building, state attorneys general sat shoulder to shoulder with Big Tobacco. They were gathered for what former FDA Administrator David Kessler called the first action to break the "hold the industry has had over the Congress."

At the same time, across the street on a patch of grass called "the swamp," gun control advocates huddled in the rain around the valiant first couple of Handgun Control Inc., James and Sarah Brady. As the drops fell on the press releases and cross cameramen, Sens. John Chafee (R-R.I.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) proferred a modest proposal they have named the Child Firearms Access Prevention Act, a legislative response to the atrocity in Arkansas.

Do you think it's too much to ask of a politician who is timid except in amour to confront his own people on such an emotional subject? In the president's part of the world, and the West, too, guns seem to be as precious as children. Hunting is regarded as a bonding experience between the generations. The president grew up in the tradition and could talk all the better to them about the need for change.

The markup of the tobacco settlement bill of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) proves that these vast subjects can be moved around under the right auspices. Cigarette smokers have been driven to the doorways of office buildings, routed from planes and restaurants and asked to desist in their own homes because high-minded men such as Kessler and then-surgeon general C. Everett Koop persuaded the country that smoking was not a right, but a public health problem. And also because Big Tobacco raised its right hand before Congress and swore that nicotine was not addictive or smoking dangerous when they knew perfectly well it is.

It would be hard, particularly for someone who needs so badly to be loved, for Clinton to tell his own people they must look at their beloved guns as a menace. But he should think of Lyndon Johnson of Texas, who faced the rage of his fellow Southerners and still led the country on civil rights. His best friends in Congress were powerful chairmen, ardent segregationists. But Johnson cried out in Congress, "We shall overcome." He did. Some issues require a president.

The power of the gun lobby -- the withering fire of its rhetoric, its overflowing coffers, the terror it breeds in Congress -- has generated despair in its opponents. Only a president can rescue our children. Bill Clinton owes us a try.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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