BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Well, it is a marriage in turmoil. Betrayal. Lies. Should there be a divorce? I don't mean Hillary Rodham Clinton vs. William Jefferson Clinton. That truly is a private matter.
But what about the intimate yet public union of Bill and us, the American people he has spoken of so often during his various flirtations with the truth? Didn't he make certain vows to us?
Should we give him another chance?
Monday night, just after his typically weasel-worded and lawyered-to-death "apology," pollsters found that most Americans still don't want their president to be impeached. It doesn't mean his behavior doesn't matter to us or that we are so greedy and venal that we care only about low interest rates and high stock dividends.
Despite the fact that we're not willing to send him packing, the American people still prize honor and character. We do not admire cheats and liars. We do not revere sexual grazing. But Americans also are pragmatic. Fair. And often gallant.
Think of the women you know who have agreed to live with their philandering husbands "until the kids are older." And it's not -- for the most part -- because they don't want to lose their standard of living. They do not want their children to suffer the upheaval of divorce.
They weigh their personal pride against the wisdom of discarding good fathers and good providers. They distinguish between the brutal and the boorish, the criminal and the carnal. They throw their shoulders back, hold up their heads and give it another try.
The American people continue to insist that they are willing -- even eager -- to put this matter behind them. They have considered the consequences of a divorce -- the disruption and pain of throwing him out of the White House, the country weakened by the collapse of a presidency.
And if his "confession" omitted the words "I'm sorry," we can be thankful he didn't give one of his patented, lip-chewing, wet-eyed, feeling-your-pain addresses.
Hold the bathos
At least our head of state, commander in chief did not snivel. We didn't need to wallow in bathos to complete our humiliation. We can be grateful for his composure. Maybe somebody reminded him that his performance was televised around the world.
ABC's Sam Donaldson complained that the president did not confess the specific relationship he had with Monica Lewinsky. What kind of detail do we need? The public has made it crystal clear that it thinks those of us in the media already have supplied an intolerable amount of detail. Most Americans still do not regard sex as a spectator sport.
As the president was continuing to recite the biggest lie of all -- that this is a "private" matter -- it was clear that he will not thank us for our understanding and some lovely years. He will not quietly hand over his seat on Air Force One to Al Gore. He will not bail out. He will not resign.
"The words "I quit' are not in his vocabulary," says the president's most authoritative biographer, David Maraniss.
The only way Mr. Clinton will release this country from our vows is if he is faced with certain impeachment. Just as he decided to admit to his "critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure" only when the special prosecutor got the goods on him.
I wonder what the polls would say if we were asked whether we would be willing to have Bill Clinton as our president for as long as he wants to be -- say, 20 more years? Would we be willing to celebrate our golden wedding anniversary with him?
Of course not. We can never trust him to look us in the eye and tell the truth. We know that he is reckless. We have seen that he is willing to deceive those closest to him.
But we'll give him another two years. For the sake of the country.
Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org