At a White House prayer breakfast the day that Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's report, replete with all sorts of lurid details, appeared on Internet, President Clinton stated, ``I don't think there is a fancy way to say that I have sinned. It is important to me that everybody who has been hurt know that the sorrow I feel is genuine -- first and most important my family, also my friends, my staff, my cabinet, Monica Lewinsky and her family, and the American people. I have asked all for their forgiveness''
Should President Clinton be forgiven for his disgusting behavior and the lies that he told in an effort to conceal from the public his affair with Ms. Lewinsky?
In Mere Christianity, the British author and literary critic C.S. Lewis suggests that we should forgive everyone, even our enemies. Writing shortly after the end of World II, Lewis states that we should even forgive the Gestapo, Hitler's hated secret police who were viewed by many as the most wicked of the wicked.
That's a tall order, as Lewis himself acknowledges. Before trying to forgive the Gestapo, Lewis suggests, we might need to develop our skills of forgiveness by forgiving family members and friends for things they have done wrong in the hope that in time we will be able to forgive even the Gestapo.
While Mr. Clinton's sins are of a far lesser magnitude than those committed by the Gestapo, they are nevertheless reprehensible and infuriating.
It will take most folks some time before they reach the point of being able to forgive Mr. Clinton. But in time, it both can and should be done.
There is, however, a related point. Forgiving our fellow human beings does not exempt them from taking responsibility for what they have done or from being subjected to whatever penalties are appropriate. If you lend your car to a friend and your friend wraps it around a telephone pole, forgiving your friend does not get your friend off the hook with respect to paying for the damage done to your car (or to the telephone pole).
And, it might be added, even after forgiving your friend, you might understandably be reluctant to let your friend use the car you purchase to replace the one wrapped around the telephone pole.
Mr. Clinton seems to think that he can simply talk his way out of the mess he has created for himself. Even if his words of remorse are sincere (cynics can be forgiven for questioning whether they are given his long history of lying whenever it suits his purpose), he must assume responsibility for and suffer the consequences of what he has done.
As previously noted in this space, my view (which is not shared by a majority of the American public) is that Mr. Clinton ought to assume full responsibility for what he has done by resigning. That's the only way to salvage a modicum of honor from a thoroughly dishonorable situation.
If Mr. Clinton is not willing to do the honorable thing by resigning, the House of Representatives ought to begin impeachment proceedings, which are likely to result either in impeachment or a strongly-worded motion of censure.
A POSTSCRIPT: Though criticized by some, the House of Representatives did exactly what it should have done when it voted to release Mr. Starr's report on the Lewinsky affair. Overturning an election via the impeachment process is a very serious matter and ought to be done only if there is a strong public mandate for so doing. With a substantial majority of the public opposed to impeachment, the House had no choice but to release the report and then wait to see if there are any significant shifts in public opinion. If public opinion, as measured by various polls, remains more or less where it is, the only practical option is a motion of censure.
Dan Lee is professor of ethics at Augustana College.