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President Clinton’s defenders have successfully sidetracked the Tailgate debate by insisting that, so far, all we have are unproven allegations of sexual and professional impropriety, abuse of power, witness tampering, perjury and obstruction of justice.

That’s all. What’s the big deal? Where’s the smoking gun?

But a friend of mine who works in the executive branch points out that he just received his annual required training on ethical conduct for government officers and employees. While some might suggest the term “government ethics” is an oxymoron, my friend says the emphasis in the program was on avoiding even the “appearance” of impropriety.

Why isn’t anyone talking about “ethics in government,” my friend wonders. We don’t need government ethics reform, he says. We just need to enforce the laws already on the books.

And what are some of those laws that might make Kenneth Starr, Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton sit up and take notice? Executive Order 12674 of April 12, 1989, requires that all executive branch employees and supervisors “act impartially and not give preferential treatment to any private organization or individual.”

Now, are we to take this edict seriously and apply it to the president and his relationship with Lewinsky? Or, are we to say that the rules only apply to Joe E-6 or Jane GS-7?

Furthermore, the law requires employees of the executive branch “to avoid any actions creating the appearance that they are violating the law or the ethical standards promulgated to this order.” Is there any question that such an appearance has already been created? Just ask Jay Leno, for Pete’s sake.

I have never been one of these people who suggests we all need to revere our federal government institutions. I actually think it’s healthy to be skeptical — even a little cynical — about government. But, in a momentary distraction from my usual hard labors and serious research recently, I punched “Clinton jokes” into one of the major Internet search engines. What do you think I found? About 54,000 web sites. Each one of the sites I checked was packed with hundreds of jokes — almost all of them focusing on “Le Affaire Intern.”

In other words, the president has not just created the appearance of impropriety, he has created a cottage industry of cynicism about government — particularly the executive branch.

“Public service is a public trust,” state the Principles of Ethical Conduct for Government Officers and Employees. “Each employee has a responsibility to the United States government and its citizens to place loyalty to the Constitution, laws and ethical principles above private gain.”

Constitution? Laws? Ethical principles? You can almost hear the laughter in the Oval Office. This stuff may seem like small potatoes, but if the example is not going to be set at the top, how can you enforce the laws against those at the bottom?

Did you know that the exchange of gifts between President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky was a possible violation of this law? First of all, there are severe restrictions on the acceptance of any gifts worth $20 or more. Secondly, the law prohibits the acceptance of gifts from “sources on a basis so frequent that a reasonable person would be led to believe the employee is using his public office for private gain.”

Is there any question Lewinsky got preferential treatment from the president? Did the gifts received affirm that appearance? But it gets even worse.

In a section titled “Misuse of Position” — certainly an appropriate heading for a discussion of the Lewinsky affair — the law states: “Executive branch employees must not use their public office for their own or another’s private gain. Employees are not to use their position, title or any authority associated with their office to coerce or induce a benefit for themselves or others.”

In the case of Lewinsky and Clinton, it’s difficult to discern which of them took greater advantage of their “positions,” if you get my drift. But, nonetheless, it’s time to either scrap these arcane government ethics rules and regulations or enforce them — starting at the top.

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