Sometimes labels stick like glue. Henry Hyde is a six-foot, three-inch lawmaker with a mane of silver hair who has been called “respected” so often that it might as well be part of his name—as in “the widely respected Hyde.” He is also chairman of the judiciary committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, the very body called upon to decide whether President Bill Clinton should undergo the ordeal of impeachment.
So when Hyde was abruptly dragged through the mud last week, the fallout ended any lingering hope that Clinton’s fate could be weighed in the calm manner that legislators claim to want. An online magazine considered close to the White House revealed an extramarital affair that Hyde conducted 30 years ago. Worse, he was the third Republican to have embarrassing details of his private life unveiled in the past month. Suddenly, the talk was of sexual witch-hunts, sexual McCarthyism, even sexual Armageddon. Could Clinton really be trying to smear his critics in so blatant a fashion?
Probably not. In all three cases, including Hyde’s, there were plausible explanations of why the hidden corners of politicians’ past lives would be exposed now without any prodding from the White House. But with Clinton revealed as a public liar in the Monica Lewinsky affair, his critics knew they could get away with accusing him and his operatives of the lowest type of political behavior—without offering a shred of evidence. “I have no doubt who is behind it,” charged Tom DeLay, the Republican whip in the House. “I just don’t have the proof.” When independent counsel Kenneth Starr sent his damning report on the Lewinsky saga to Capitol Hill on Sept. 9, charging Clinton with 11 impeachable offences, the politicians rushed to assure the public that they would go over the evidence carefully and thoughtfully. By the end of last week, they were at one another’s throats.
It will only get dirtier—quite literally—this week. Hyde’s committee spent much of last week poring over 2,800 pages of grand jury testimony that Starr used to support his 445-page report to Congress. Republicans were adamant that as much of the material as possible be made public, and they soon set the time—9 a.m. on Monday, just as Clinton would be preparing to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. The documents were considered to be every bit as graphic as the Starr report’s unflinching accounts of the 10 sexual encounters inside the White House between Clinton and Lewinsky—in some cases, even more so.
Even worse for Clinton, Hyde was due to release the video of the President’s testimony before the grand jury. The White House and
The release of Clinton’s video testimony will only make Washington’s political war dirtier
Democrats on Hyde’s committee argued fruitlessly that a transcript would be enough, that making the tape public would only further humiliate an already humbled President. Much of his testimony is already known—the Starr report quoted key parts of it. But the political impact could be enormous when tens of millions of people see Clinton subjected to a barrage of questions about what type of sex he had with Lewinsky (“If she says that you kissed her breasts, would she be lying?”). Or when voters watch Clinton fence with Starr’s lawyers over such seemingly straightforward questions as whether he was ever alone with Lewinsky (“It depends on how you define alone,” he testified). And Clinton loses his temper at one point and storms from the witness stand, a glimpse of the anger he is famed for but which is rarely seen in public. Democratic strategists
know how damaging those images may be. For Republicans, the risk is backlash—a public revulsion against yet more sleaze.
With the stakes so high, it was no surprise that the politicians’ public hopes for calm debate came to little. The surprise was perhaps how quickly they ended, and in such a seamy manner. For weeks, there had been suggestions that as release of the Starr report neared, open season might be declared on the moral and sexual failings of members of Congress. No one doubted that the 435 members of the House and 100 senators have their fair share of skeletons in the closet. “This is a human institution,” said Mark Sanford, a Republican congressman from South Carolina. ‘Take it as a given that weird stuff goes on.”
Rumors began circulating that the White House might conduct a so-called scorched-earth policy—arranging for dirt on its enemies to be spread liberally around. There would be nothing new in that.
Women claiming sexual involvement with Clinton—such as Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey—had been subjected to fierce attacks by the President’s defenders. Clinton’s stepbrother, Roger, even went on a national talk show in August and issued a not-so-veiled threat. “There are some of the political people that had best watch themselves because of the old glass-house story,” he said. “Be very careful.” The first sound of glass breaking came in early September, when Dan Burton, a prominent Republican congressman from Indiana, admitted he had fathered an illegitimate son in the 1980s. Vanity Fair magazine was asking questions about his past, and he decided to pre-empt them. Burton chairs a House committee investigating the Democrats’ campaign-finance scandals, and earlier this year called Clinton a “scumbag.” He claimed the White House was behind the exposé, but offered no proof. A week later, ultra-conservative Idaho Republican Helen Chenoweth admitted she had conducted a six-year affair in the 1980s with a married man. The Idaho Statesman said it reported on the long-rumored liaison because Chenoweth champions so-called family values and ran TV ads attacking Clinton over Lewinsky.
POLL OF POLLS
Most polls taken last week in the wake of the Starr report’s release showed President Bill Clinton’s approval rating holding steady at around 60 per cent. Yet a majority of respondents still believe Clinton acted illegally in the Monica Lewinsky affair, and only half have a “favorable” opinion of him. A sampling of responses to surveys by six major news and polling partnerships:
Oppose Clinton’s impeachment 56%
Don’t think Clinton should resign 66%
Favor Congress censuring Clinton 60%
Agree House should hold impeachment hearings 36% Believe Clinton obstructed justice 60%
Have a favorable opinion of Clinton 51%
Have a favorable opinion of Ken Starr 32%
POLL SOURCES: USA TODAY/CNN/GALLUP; CBS NEWS/NEW YORK TIMES; WASHINGTON POST/ABC NEWS; WALL STREET J0URNAL/NBC NEWS; BUSINESS WEEK/HARRIS POLL; LOS ANGELES TIMES
Approve of the job Clinton is doing 63%
Believe Clinton committed perjury 60%
Have a favorable opinion of Hillary Clinton 61%
Hyde’s long-ago transgression came to light when Salon, a magazine published on the Internet, reported that he had a five-year affair with a married woman named Cherie Snodgrass starting in 1965. The woman’s ex-husband called Hyde “this hypocrite who broke up my family.” Hyde dismissed it as a “youthful indiscretion”— although he was 41 when the affair began. Salon has savaged Starr and generally defended Clinton, leading Hyde’s friends to claim it was another White House smear. The White House denied involvement, and Salon said it got the story from a friend of the man whose wife Hyde bedded. What’s more, its editors wrote, Clinton’s enemies started the process by making sexual behavior a public issue. “Aren’t we fighting fire with fire, descending to the gutter tactics of those we deplore?” the editors asked. “Frankly, yes. But ugly times call for ugly tactics.” Republicans called on the FBI to investigate a White House link to the report, but there may not be any link. “Frankly,” said Norman Ornstein, an expert on Congress at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, “you didn’t need the White House to make these things come out. Once we started down the slippery slope of looking at sexual behavior, this was bound to happen.” Tom Allen, a Democratic congressman from Maine, added in an interview: “All these stories indicate where an investigation of sexual activity will take us. It’s driving down the system.” But because Clinton’s aides have attacked his enemies so savagely in the past, they were vulnerable to accusations that they were dishing the latest dirt. ‘The White House has such low credibility that Republicans can charge them with dirty tricks, and if they deny it, it doesn’t mean a whole lot,” said Ornstein.
Although Democrats on Hyde’s committee, among the most leftwing in their party, will defend Clinton, many others are distancing themselves from the President. An aide to one Democratic lawmaker told Maclean’s that, privately, two dozen of the 206 Democratic congressmen want Clinton to resign and spare his country—and party— the agony of impeachment. Yet opinion polls show his job-approval rating continues at 60 per cent and above. About two-thirds of Americans
still oppose impeaching him, although most say he should be subjected to the much milder sanction of censure—essentially a public rebuke by Congress. Another idea: make him pay a fine to compensate for the $6.7 million that Starr spent investigating the Lewinsky affair.
Alaska Senator Frank Murkowski, who suggested such a fine, told Maclean’s: “He lied under oath.
There’s got to be a penalty for that, or there’s no incentive to tell the truth.”
At the same time, Clinton is trying to do his job—and be seen doing it.
Many issues—such as Saddam Hussein’s attempts to avoid UN arms inspections in Iraq—are getting scant attention because of the intense focus on the scandal. In New York last week, the President made a major speech on the financial crisis that has spread from Asia to Russia and threatens the United States and other economies. He called it “the biggest financial challenge facing the world in a half-century,” and urged efforts to stimulate growth in depressed countries. But although Clinton’s words made headlines overseas, they had little impact at home. The speech prompted Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to telephone the President the next day and wish him good luck in his current crisis. “I think it’s distracting him from his work,” Chrétien said later. “There’s no question about it.”
Outside Washington, Clinton is getting mixed messages. He is clearly counting heavily on the fact that his poll numbers have borne up well in the eight months since the Lewinsky scandal broke. The White House likes to stress the yawning gap between socalled elite opinion in Washington, which is overwhelmingly against Clinton, and the rest of the country, which, surveys show, believes his sins do not warrant removal from office. In Cincinnati last week, where he went to raise $750,000 for his party, he said Washington is “obsessed with itself instead of America.” But the Cincinnati Enquirer welcomed him to town with a front-page editorial urging him to quit: “If you have any decency, selfrespect or honor, you will spare us the ordeal of removing you by impeachment. Resign.” Elsewhere, many still hope vainly that the Lewinsky story will just go away. In Little Rock, Ark., where Clinton reigned as governor for 12 years, few are shocked; his extracurricular sex life was an open secret for years. In the newly revitalized River Market District, near the site of the future Clinton presidential library by the Arkansas River, lawyer Greg Ferguson paused to reflect on the President’s woes. “It was a real bad thing for him to do in that position, and that place,”
he said. “It was just reckless behavior. [But] I don’t think he should be impeached and removed.” Maintenance man Rick Johnson said people should be tolerant: “He hasn’t done anything that no other man hasn’t. He just got caught.” Graduate student Ann Parks agreed: “Who cares? I’m sick of it. Clinton’s private life is just that—private. Enough already.”
In America’s Midwest heartland, the Washington scandals have often seemed like a distant, if intrusive, tragedy. The Starr report, though, grabbed people’s attention. At Derry Hegarty’s Irish Pub in Milwaukee, bartender Linda Bluvstein said bluntly that Clinton should resign or be impeached. “He should have some fun,” she said, “but when he goes on television or before a grand jury and lies, that’s different.” Dentist Jeff Putney agreed— the President must go. “It’s a good thing he didn’t go into the military,” said Putney. “He’d be out, without his benefits.” Others, especially African-Americans, are more inclined to be tolerant. Rev. Raymond Gipson, a Baptist minister, said what Clinton did “was wrong, but not impeachable. I hate it from the religious standpoint, but you have to be forgiving.” The President can only hope that most Americans, far from the fray in Washington, will continue to feel the same way.
With STEPHEN GLUCK in Washington, SUZI PARKER in Little Rock and WAYNE YOUNGQUIST in Milwaukee
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