Despite Clinton’s Senate acquittal, hard feelings remain
ANDREW PHILLIPS IN WASHINGTON
Bill Clinton has had the better part of a year to learn how to get it right, how to say “I’m sorry” and sound like he means it. He flubbed it last August, when he turned a would-be apology for his misbehaviour in the White House into a stinging attack on his accusers. He botched it again in December, when he surrounded himself with cheering supporters on the White House lawn right after the U.S. House of Representatives impeached him. Last week, he took another shot at it and decided that short and simple might be best, after all. Two hours after the Senate acquitted him on charges of peijury and obstructing justice, the President strode out of his office, stood alone before a podium in the Rose Garden and said “how profoundly sorry I am for what I said and did to trigger these events.” It was, he said, time for “reconciliation and renewal.”
It was a suitably low-key response to what came as an anti-climax to 13 months of political melodrama. Past scandals, like the Watergate affair that forced Richard Nixon from office in 1974, produced heroes as well as villains. The system was saved; the evil-doers were ousted. The sorry story of the President and the intern may have transfixed Washington, but it left nothing ennobling in its wake. Little wonder, then, that once the Senate had voted as predicted, the survivors of the saga seemed to want to flee the scene as quickly as possible. In public at least, there was no rejoicing among the victors—and not even many recriminations among those who lost the battle. Clinton himself set the less-thandramatic tone by letting it be known that he did not even bother to watch the vote on television: his chief of staff phoned him with the result while he was engaged in late-morning exercises.
The result had been foreshadowed for months. But the air in the Senate chamber was still electric when the moment arrived for all 100 members to stand by their desks and respond to the question, posed according to tradition by Chief Justice William Rehnquist: “Senators, how say you? Is the respondent, William Jefferson Clinton, guilty or not guilty?” For only the second time in American history, they stood and they spoke—and the result for Clinton was about as good as he could have hoped.
On the first impeachment article, charging him with committing perjury before a grand jury investigating the Monica Lewinsky scandal, 10 Republicans, mainly moderates from northeastern states, joined all 45 Democrats and answered “not guilty.” On the second article, accusing the President of obstructing justice, five of those Republicans split with their party—resulting in a 50-50 decision. Not only did the votes fall far short of the two-thirds needed to convict Clinton, but the prosecutors could not muster even a simple majority of the Senate to pronounce him guilty on either charge.
It was a crushing defeat for the Republican congressmen appointed by the House as prosecutors, or “managers,” of the case against the President, which stemmed from his 18-month affair with Lewinsky and his attempts to cover it up. The prosecutors’ frustration was evident— both at Clinton and at their supposed allies in the Senate. They never had a clear shot at the President, they complained, because the procedure devised by the Senate did not allow them to present their full case against him. Instead of having a proper trial with witnesses and drama, they end-
ed up rehashing the saga in a losing battle against Clinton’s formidable legal team. ‘We weren’t happy,” said their leader, Representative Henry Hyde of Illinois, “because we were circumscribed by the rules.”
And in fact, the prosecutors found that their fellow Republicans in the Senate recoiled from impeachment as a distasteful task to be dispensed with as quickly as possible. By the time the impeachment trial opened on Jan. 14, it was apparent that even most Senate Republicans were taking their cues from the public’s demand to end the affair and “move on”—the mantra of the past year. “The Senate Republicans showed the aggression of a neutered house cat,” said a bitter Jack Kingston, a Republican congressman from Georgia. Tie only thing worse than the
Democrats forming a solid front behind their embattled President, he added, was “the weeniness of the Senate Republicans.”
Those bitter feelings will surely linger, as many conservative Republicans shake their heads in wonder at how a President who has outfoxed them time and again managed to slip their noose one more time. The split between Republicans in the House and those in the Senate suggests that the party may be riven for months by an intramural debate. Right-wingers can be expected to accuse moderates of abandoning principle, allowing a lawbreaking President to stay in office because his poll numbers remain high. Moderates will reply that the House Republicans became obsessed with impeachment, driving the party to its lowest ebb in public esteem in many years and putting its hold on Congress at risk in next year’s elections.
NOW FOR THE SPIN
The trial may be over, but the books and talk have just begun. Linda Tripp, the woman who started it all by turning over tele phone tapes of Monica Lewinsky to prosecutor Ken Starr, last week launched herself on a round of TV appearances to try to refurbish her unpopular image. She said it was her "patriotic duty" to do what she did. The
next Big Event will likely be the appearance, in late February, of Monica's Story, Lewinsky's muchhyped authorized memoir by Diana biographer Andrew Morton. Lewinsky is also set to tell her tale to ABC's Barbara Walters. After that will come a flurry of books. Most will be written by journalists, but insiders say presidential friend Vernon Jordan-who tried to say as little as possible during the scandal-is also looking for a publishing deal.
The affair will linger in many other ways, as well. The list of those badly wounded is long—Clinton himself; the Republicans; the independent counsel Kenneth Starr, whose tireless pursuit of the President turned him into a reviled figure among many Americans; and a string of other individuals led by Lewinsky, a young woman made notorious by her liaison in the White House.
For the President, acquittal was tempered with the knowledge that he will forever be marked with the brand of impeachment—the first elected president in American history to be so tarnished. Even his most faithful supporters in the Senate spent much of last week excoriating him in the harshest terms. As they prepared to pronounce him not guilty, Democrats made sure they covered their political flank by putting their disapproval of him on the record. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California tried unsuccessfully to have the Senate pass a censure resolution condemning Clinton’s behaviour. Republicans blocked that effort, but even as the Senate weighed the President’s fate behind closed doors, Democrats peppered their speeches with denunciations of their titular leader. The President’s conduct, said Senator Richard Bryan of Nevada, was “boorish, indefensible, even reprehensible.” “It was irresponsible and indefensible,” agreed Barbara Boxer of California. There was more—“shameful,” “reckless,” “sordid,” “immoral,” “despicable.” And that was just from Clinton’s friends.
With the trial behind him, the decision Clinton must make is how best to repair his reputation and forge a political legacy to weigh in the balance against the stain of impeachment. In promising to seek “reconciliation and renewal,” Clinton sent a clear signal that he intends to work with the Republican Congress in order to pass new legislation this year. But his allies sent out other, very different, signals as well. On the eve of the Senate vote, anonymous advisers to the President were quoted by The New York Times as saying he was furious at the Republicans who spearheaded the impeachment drive against him and was vowing to bury them politically. In particular, the advisers said, he intended to target the 13 congressmen who acted as prosecutors against him and make sure they lose their seats in the House next year. Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, two years after Clinton moved into the White House, and the President was said to consider winning the House back for Democrats next year a key part of ensuring his political legacy (along, of course, with helping Vice-President Al Gore succeed him in the White House). And, the advisers said, Clinton intends to use his formidable fund-raising ability to finance a Democratic drive targeting his opponents.
Some of his political allies, too, were speaking less of forgiving, and more of getting even. James Carville, the attack-dog campaign consultant who is one of Clinton’s fiercest defenders, defiantly declared that he is not part of what he dismissed as the “forgive-and-forget battalion.” A liberal interest group that has outspokenly defended Clinton throughout the impeachment battle, People for the American Way, announced a campaign to raise $5 million (U.S.) to help defeat conservative Republican congressmen and “end the religious right’s occupation of Congress.” The group began running a TV ad in selected cities bashing the Republicans over impeachment and threatening to oust them from office in 2000. Republicans accused the President of seeking payback, not peace. “It is deeply troubling,” said Trent Lott of Mississippi, the party’s leader in the Senate, “that the President views closure of this constitutional process as an opportunity for revenge.”
And Starr, the independent counsel who pursued Clinton so relentlessly, may come under new fire himself. As the Senate entered its final deliberations last week, other unnamed officials let it be known that the justice department had decided to begin an inquiry into Starr’s own office. At issue is whether Starr’s prosecutors misled the department in January, 1998, when they won permission to investigate the Lewinsky affair but did not fully disclose their contacts with lawyers representing Paula Jones in her sexual harassment
lawsuit against Clinton. A justice department investigation would set the stage for yet another round of recriminations between Starr and the Clinton administration—continuing well after the Senate trial fades into memory.
Publicly at least, White House officials insisted that there is no plan to target Clinton’s political enemies. Joe Lockhart, the President’s chief spokesman, said he could not think “of a worse, more dumb strategy” than going after opponents simply because they prosecuted the case against the President. Other White House officials argued that the
notion of a vendetta against Republicans stems more from Clinton’s natural tendency to “vent” his frustrations with his political enemies in conversations with friends than from any thought-out campaign of revenge.
Whatever his true state of mind, Clinton’s best chance to influence the judgment of future historians is to record some significant legislative accomplishments in the 23 months he has left in the White House. Impeachment will surely figure in the first paragraph of his political obituary—balanced by such accomplishments as eliminating the federal budget deficit, presiding over a period of prosperity and reforming the U.S. welfare system. But Clinton still has time to add some more achievements to the positive side of the ledger. In the state of the union address that he delivered to Congress on Jan. 19, the President unveiled an ambitious list of initiatives, ranging from more money for school construction and the military, to ensuring the long-term financial survival of social security and the American health insurance system (which mainly covers the elderly and those on welfare). To get any of those things done, Clinton must reach agreement with the Republicans who control both Houses of Congress—the very men and women who have just finished voting in favour of two articles of impeachment declaring that he “has undermined the integrity
of his office, has brought disrepute on the presidency, has betrayed his trust as President and has acted in a manner subversive of the rule of law and justice.”
Ordinarily, it would seem that their relations would be so strained that it would be impossible to work together. At the most basic level, Clinton’s repeated lying about his relationship with Lewinsky calls his trustworthiness into serious question. But both sides find themselves needing to strike deals to show voters that they stand above the impeachment debacle. And Clinton, though publicly shamed, may have more leverage than he would have had if the world had never heard of Monica Lewinsky, Linda Tripp and the rest. In the normal course of events, his power would already be ebbing quickly as his presidency enters the final stage of his second term. Now, however, his job approval rating remains at extraordinary levels—65 to 70 per cent in most polls—and he has shown that he can maintain remarkable popular support even as he is besieged by scandal. More important, Republicans seem so disoriented by his ability to survive anything they throw at him, and so disturbed by their own plunging approval levels, that they are eager to deal. The lesson most of them drew from the Lewinsky affair is that they lost support because they failed to articulate any message other than impeachment.
As a result, goes the thinking, both Clinton and the Republicans have powerful incentives to reach agreement on some concrete measures. At the top of the list are such proposals as more money for school construction and a so-called patients’ bill of rights aimed at making sure health insurance companies pay better attention to the rights of their clients. Passing legislation in those areas would allow both sides to claim that they have gone beyond impeachment and are back in the world of getting things done.
The biggest issue on the U.S. political agenda, however, is what to do with the growing federal budget surplus. Clinton wants to reserve most of the surplus for making sure that the social security system does not run out of cash once baby boomers start retiring en masse in about 15 years. If he can strike a deal with the Republican Congress on how to do that, it would go a long way towards making sure that he leaves a significant political legacy to weigh against the ignominy of impeachment. And it would demonstrate once more that no matter how low he falls, Clinton has an astonishing ability to rise again. □