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Wretched rhetoric spews from our leaders

The speaker of the House and the president of the United States, the two top leaders of the elected branches of our government, apparently have decided to compete for the distinction of doing the most to degrade and diminish the high offices they hold.

Nothing else can explain the wretched rhetoric in which Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton indulged last week. They are both too intelligent to be acting inadvertently in such a repugnant manner. Indeed, both claim to have reflected long and hard before uttering the words that shamed them _ and this nation.

History will have to judge why it is that the first of their generation to reach the top of the legislative and executive branches should act in a way that inflicts such damage to the credibility of the government they head. A journalist can simply record _ and lament _ this tawdry state of affairs.

In Gingrich's case, he returned from an Easter vacation book-promotion tour on which he proclaimed that through trials and errors in his first three years as speaker, he had achieved something akin to wisdom and maturity. The self-proclaimed grown-up of 54 instantly had to clean up another blunder that occurred too late to make his book deadline _ his crude effort to bury campaign finance legislation. Faced with a rebellion led by conscientious freshmen of both parties, he retreated and offered sullen acquiescence to a real debate later this month.

Smarting from this setback, he got on his moral high-horse about the refusal of every Democrat on the House committee investigating Clinton's 1996 campaign scandals to offer immunity to four witnesses. Attorney General Janet Reno said the Justice Department had no objection to their testifying under the grant of immunity, so the Democrats had no legal leg to stand on. Their tactic was a misguided method of protesting the flagrant bias of the committee chairman, Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, whose latest display of judicious temperament was to call the president of the United States a "scumbag."

Gingrich, who has given Burton more support than he deserves, had every right to intervene. But instead of moving inside the House to settle the committee feud, he went to the most partisan of settings _ a rally of GOPAC supporters _ and outdid Burton by accusing Clinton of "undermining the law in the United States" and directing "the most systematic, deliberate obstruction of justice, coverup . . . we have ever seen in American history."

Gingrich vowed to keep up the assault in every speech and so far has kept his word. Thus the man who must deal with the president on every important issue involving the White House and Congress has made himself Clinton's chief accuser. The man who will receive any report from independent counsel Kenneth Starr and who must command enough trust from the public and both parties to organize proceedings that might lead to the impeachment of the president is, by his own choice, Attack Dog No. 1. This is a speaker of the House who would make Henry Clay or Sam Rayburn hang his head.

As for Clinton, who offered the nation his first full-scale press conference in four months only to say at least 12 times, "I can't" or "I won't" answer questions stemming from the charges against him, he revealed himself as an executive consumed by self-pity and convinced by his own convenient conspiracy theories.

The consequences of his refusal _ or inability _ to clear up questions about his relationship with a White House intern were evident during the dogged but not impertinent interrogation. He was silent, not just on the facts of the case, but on the more important institutional questions stemming from it. He is recusing himself on every question touching on the credibility of his office and the corroding effect caused by his systematic evasion of responsibility.

The ghosts of Washington and Lincoln must have cringed when Clinton was asked, "Does it matter if you have committed perjury or . . . broken the law?" and he replied, "I'm in some ways the last person who needs to be having a national conversation about this."

So much for leadership by example. And for total moral blindness, how about Clinton's twice-repeated claim that his critics "can affect my reputation . . . (but) they can do nothing to affect . . . my character"? Not once in a full hour did he acknowledge that his own actions may have shaped his reputation and revealed his character.

A question for a future history exam: Explain, at whatever length you need, how the hell the United States wound up with such a pair of leaders.

Washington Post Writers Group