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Officially, the impeachment ordeal of U.S. President Bill Clinton is over. Last Friday, the Senate — in two bipartisan votes — rejected both charges against the president. By a vote of 55 to 45, they threw out the first article of impeachment that alleged Mr. Clinton committed perjury when testifying to a grand jury regarding the particulars of his affair with Ms. Monica Lewinsky. The votes were split — 50 to 50 — on the second charge of obstruction of justice. Mr. Clinton followed his acquittal with a speech that called for reconciliation. Although the nation and the world are relieved the impeachment process is over, its effects are sure to linger in American politics. The system survived, but it will be years before the stench vanishes.

The verdict had been virtually assured before the Senate even began its deliberations. That does not mean that the men and women of that institution have not judged Mr. Clinton harshly. Even members of the president’s own party have been scathing in their condemnations. But they were unwilling to concede that those misjudgments reached the threshold set by the writers of the U.S. Constitution for requiring the removal of the president.

So what is there to show after 13 grim and angry months? Optimists conclude that the system worked. To them, the impeachment process revealed a resilient political system capable of rising to the difficult and divisive task of policing itself without breaking down. Throughout this long ordeal, the U.S. economy continued its stunning growth, the government functioned and Mr. Clinton, although hobbled by the ball and chain of the ongoing investigation, was still able to assert the authority of his office.

The pessimists — or are they realists? — concede as much, but they also ask what opportunities have been lost. More important, they ask how much bitterness will survive the impeachment vote. Rumors that Mr. Clinton has drawn up a “hit list” for the 2000 elections targeting senators who voted against him — reports that have been vehemently denied by his spokesmen — hint at the rancor that must now be overcome. Similarly, there is concern that independent counsel Kenneth Starr may still try to indict the president on criminal charges.

The hit list is unlikely: It is not Mr. Clinton’s style. But Mr. Starr is a wild card, and reports that the Department of Justice is investigating the special prosecutor’s office for ethics violations related to leaking information will keep the partisan fires burning. Furthermore, the animus that fired the entire impeachment process has not abated. There are elements of the U.S. political establishment that have never accepted Mr. Clinton’s right to the office of the president — the much-ballyhooed “rightwing conspiracy” — and his acquittal last week only provides more grist for their mill.

The hope is that Congress will now work to change its image in the eyes of the public. Republicans have taken a beating in opinion polls for their handling of the impeachment proceedings and should be especially eager to rehabilitate themselves, but the entire political class has been tarred by this scandal. As a result, politicians may now be tempted to tackle difficult issues they would normally avoid. The prevailing image of a bitterly divided political process may be the best spur for a return to bipartisanship.

Failure to grasp this opportunity could deal a serious blow to U.S. politics. A recent survey by the nonpartisan Center on Policy Attitudes found that a strong majority of Americans believes that the government makes decisions that they would not make for themselves. If that cynicism intensifies, the victims of the impeachment proceedings could well be the moderates who sought a middle ground. Disillusioned voters will drop out, leaving only the zealots of the right and left who see no place for compromise in politics. The 2000 elections could then yield a deeply divided nation.

In all of this, Mr. Clinton bears an extraordinary burden. His behavior plunged the U.S. into the impeachment melodrama. He had help, of course, but it was his lack of judgment that triggered the series of events culminating in last week’s verdicts. The president has reportedly been consumed with the legacy that he will leave. At this point, a great part of the record will be taken up by the impeachment trial and its associated scandals. No matter what he does between now and his retirement on Jan. 21, 2001, Mr. Clinton’s achievements will always be qualified. His best hope is to redeem his pledge to dedicate the remainder of his term to the ideals he brought to the office of the president.

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