PRESIDENT CLINTON'S misbehaviors and the corrosion they have set on his administration are his own fault and his own responsibility, but they never should have become a state issue. They have because of the wanton misuse of a special-prosecutor law that was over-broad in the first place and because Hillary Rodham Clinton was right, even if in the mistaken cause of defending her husband: a vast right-wing conspiracy really has been out to get the president. Her, too.
If largely informal, a whole sour-grapes network kicked in against Clinton even before his first inauguration.Scores of hard-right, often vile radio talk shows around the country took up a Clinton-as-demon theme and pounded it for years, gushing faxed accusations churned out by right-wing mills.
Megawatt televangelists - most notably but not only Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson - had the president behind every evil, even including serial murder, and the first lady as chief witch to a national coven of feminist hags.
At least a half-dozen right-wing foundations spent millions to set their media and legal dogs on the couple, as in the Paula Jones non-case.
The idea was not merely to contest with Clinton over policy disagreements; that's standard. It was to deny the very legitimacy of his elections in an unremitting push to establish ideological absolutes.
And although few Republicans have been intimates of this campaign, many have been its greedy beneficiaries, denying Clinton even customary grants of bipartisanship. His judicial and other appointees, for instance, have been vetted, sometimes harassed and often defamed for a suspected extremism neither they nor the president displayed.
The bitter partisanship was born of Republicans' disbelief they had lost the presidency; they had come to think it was theirs almost by right. Then Clinton's re-election devastated hopes raised by GOP control of Congress for a Republican hegemony at long last. Any partisan excess could be justified because moderate Clinton was held to be not just anomalous but inauthentic for an electorate believed to want seamless conservatism.
The replacement of a neutral special prosecutor with a legal and political antagonist of Clinton's set up the president for permanent investigation. After that, Clinton opponents had only to declare a stink for Kenneth Starr to take it as a scent or for other special prosecutors to be called. There are now five at work. Republicans are pressing for a sixth.
An independent-counsel statute that was meant for extraordinary situations now pounces on every target of opportunity with the bully nightstick of law enforcement, to the point where, in order finally to get something on Clinton, Starr wound up in seeming collusion with the Jones lawyers to bait and trip the president over a profoundly personal matter.
Clinton is stewing in his own juice. Serves him right. But do the rest of us want to continue to license the prosecutorial excess and reward the ideological mortal combat that together have, as they set out to do, brought him - and us - to this sorry pass?