HAVING SPENT all of my life as a supporter of the Republican Party - a teenage fan, believe it or not, of the pre-war President Herbert Hoover and, as a junior Washington correspondent in the 1950s, of the isolationist Senator Robert Taft - I have reluctantly decided to turn against them, in protest over what they are trying to do to Bill Clinton, who is, for good or ill, their country's Head of State. How can the Republican Party, which is the nearest thing America has to a Conservative Party, show so little respect, not just for the man, but for the high office he holds? When the Democratic Party were threatening to impeach President Nixon, I excused them on the grounds that, being a liberal party, they could not be expected to appreciate the crucial importance of conserving institutions, never supposing for a moment that the Republican Party, some 20 years later, would itself, putting partisan advantage before the public weal, show a comparable iconoclasm.
Not that today's British Conservative Party has a very much better record in the defence of the monarchy, our comparably pre-eminent and endangered institution. During the years of Prince Charles's self- inflicted injuries, for example, Mr Major discreetly kept his distance, leaving the Prince, with the dubious help of Jonathan Dimbleby, to paddle his own canoe. Even Mr Blair has been more actively and constructively pro-monarchist than that. In truth neither of the great British political parties is nearly as appreciative or protective of the monarchy as they used to be, any more than either of the great American political parties is any longer as appreciative or protective of the presidency as they used to be.
Mercifully, President Clinton is showing every sign of being able to take care of himself and therefore of his great office. (So, also, as it happens, is the Prince of Wales). The President last week in front of the grand jury was formidably "cool". Although the conditions were about as challenging as they could possibly be, he somehow maintained his dignity - remained, that is, presidential. That was no mean feat. You may object that it was merely a great piece of acting, but acting of that high an order - vastly exceeding the range of Ronald Reagan's - is itself a rare political art, the value of which should never be underestimated.
In any case this was more than just a great piece of acting. It was also undoubtedly a performance of conspicuous courage. Few ordinary mortals would have been able to take the strain without cracking. Bill Clinton must have nerves of steel, Herculean self- control, dauntless spirit - in a word, guts. When it comes to resisting a pretty girl, he may be a pushover, but he was no pushover when faced by a potentially lethal cross- examination.
In the bad old days of "trial by ordeal", suspected felons were put to some hideously cruel test and their guilt or innocence was determined by how they came through it. By that criterion, if by no other, Bill Clinton deserves to be declared innocent, and if his Republican enemies - few, if any, of whom under such circumstances would have done as well - had any sense of decency, they would now call off the chase. Nor, in my view, would this necessarily leave the President so lamed and crippled as to be unable to complete his term in style. For the way he is surviving his ordeal has not so much disproved his mettle as …