IS IT WORSE TO MUG AN OLD LADY TO raise money for a criminal gang than it is to mug an old lady because you want to buy a case of Dr. Pepper and a box of Moon Pies? If you say yes, you might want to update that resume. There's a job waiting for you in the Clinton communications office.

Over the past month, the Clinton defenders seem to have worked out a two- tiered defense in the Lewinsky scandal. On network television, spokespersons like the first lady and Rahm Emanuel have insisted that they believe wholeheartedly in the truth of the president's denials. Independent counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation of the president is oppressive, they say, because the president has done nothing wrong.

But in settings where they know they are encountering an audience that has been following the Lewinsky matter more closely, the president's defenders have worked out over the past month a less laughable excuse. They do not ask the viewers of CNN or MS-NBC or CNBC or Fox News, or the readers of the op-ed pages of the New York Times or the Washington Post, to believe the president. They understand that nobody who follows this case, friend or foe, believes the president. What they argue instead is that the underlying infractions are so petty and personal that no investigation of them should ever have been undertaken. Even if the president did lie, even if he asked Vernon Jordan to hush a witness or Betty Currie to help evade a federal subpoena, the motives for the lie or the witness-tampering or the subpoena- evading deserve forbearance. Nixon's obstruction of justice threatened the constitutional order of the United States; Clinton's threatens only the tranquility of his marriage. The country ought to let it be.

But it is worth asking ourselves this question: What are the consequences of letting it be? If Clinton prevails, what will that mean?

Suppose for a moment that the credible allegations heard over the past few weeks turn out to be true. Suppose the president did indeed perjure himself and, through bribes and threats, secured the perjury of others. Suppose in the Lewinsky affair and in other scandals as well, people who worked for him or for his wife attempted to hide materials under federal subpoena. Suppose the threats that are being made to disclose damaging information about Republicans in Congress turn out to have some connection to the Clinton administration's illegal acquisition of the FBI files of some 900 Republicans. Suppose that when the president's lawyers, the president's friends, and one of the president's lawyer's other clients hired private investigators to spy on the president's enemies, they were acting to serve the president's interests. Suppose -- and one does not need an especially suspicious mind to suppose it -- that all those things are true. If they are, then what we have here is a near-photocopy of the Watergate scandal, with this one big proviso: The presidential character flaw that set the scandal in motion was lechery rather than paranoia.

Now suppose that, unlike Nixon, Clinton somehow escapes unpunished from the Lewinsky scandal. Ask yourself this: What will that mean for the future of constitutional government in the United States? The answer is that the wrongfulness of presidential perjury, witness-tampering, and obstruction of justice; the wrongfulness of non-cooperation with a lawful federal investigation, the creation of an off-the-books corps of personal presidential spies, and the use of information generated by those spies to attempt to harass and intimidate federal law-enforcement officials -- the wrongfulness of all those things will depend on the motives and personality of the president who does them. These deeds will no longer be treated as intrinsically wrong.

If presidential lawbreaking and domestic espionage to cover up paranoiac actions are illegal, but presidential lawbreaking and domestic espionage to cover up lecherous actions are not, future presidents will encounter some fascinating legal problems. Suppose a president's vice is avarice. Is that more like lechery (in which case perjury and witness-tampering to cover up the taking of bribes might be okay) or paranoia (in which case they are huge constitutional offenses)? What about alcoholism? Sloth? (Yes, sloth: In last week's New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin tells the following story. Back in 1974, Bill Clinton, then a professor at the University of Arkansas law school, lost an exam paper belonging to his future judge, Susan Webber Wright. Clinton's girlfriend, Hillary Rodham, offered the young Wright a deal: If she would keep quiet about the lost paper, Clinton would give her a B + in the course. Even ordinary laziness can potentially spawn lying, cheating, and coverups.)

America has of course survived presidential lawlessness in the past. FDR and LBJ had nothing to learn from Bill Clinton about abuse of the FBI and spying on enemies. But the difference this time is that the president has been caught while still in office. If Clinton prevails, he will become the first president to flout the law openly, in sight of the whole country, and survive. It is hard to imagine a more destructive attack on the first principles of republican self-government and the rule of law than that. Which is why, despite the poll numbers, nobody with faith in America should doubt that, in the end, the president must lose.

David Frum is a conributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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