The Second Term - Rush to nowhere

Following his grand jury testimony on 17 August 1998, Clinton took to the airwaves to admit to the nation that he had engaged in a relationship with Monica Lewinsky that was "not appropriate," that his testimony in January in a "politically inspired lawsuit" had been "legally accurate," but that at no time had he asked anyone to "lie, to hide or destroy evidence, or to take any other unlawful action." He deeply regretted his "personal failure." But the matter, he argued, should be left between himself and "the two people I love most—my wife and our daughter—and our God." He called for a halt to "the pursuit of personal destruction and the prying into private lives" and expressed a desire to continue the work of the nation.

The speech itself was a classic piece of Clinton triangulation that balanced apology, lawyer-like caution about damaging admissions, and outrage at Starr. Reactions among his intimates varied. Some betrayed members of the presidential staff (though none from the cabinet) resigned, though not immediately. The most important decision was Hillary Clinton's—and she chose once more to be the supportive, wronged, wife. Democrats on Capitol Hill were angry and divided. Some favored asking Clinton to resign. Others were like Connecticut senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who took to the Senate floor to express his "disappointment and personal anger" at the president's immoral conduct, but said that he would settle for a bipartisan resolution of censure as the correct chastisement.

September was another difficult month for the president. Starr sent two vanloads of documents to the thirty-seven-member House Judiciary Committee, along with a report summarizing the evidence that could be used as a basis for impeachment. Parts of the report were posted on the congressional Web site and immediately became public property. In order to support his contention that Clinton lied even in narrowly defined legal terms about never having "had sex" with Lewinsky, Starr had included her highly explicit testimony about who had touched what body parts, for how long, and with what results. In addition to the public embarrassment brought on by the intimate disclosures, Clinton saw the release and airing of his shifty grand jury testimony. All that was held back was a large accumulation of "raw" data, unverified claims of Clinton misdeeds, including alleged sexual harassment of no fewer than twenty-one women.

Dirt began to fly as the Judiciary Committee, a particularly partisan body, debated on the scope and length of its hearings. In September 1998 the Web site unearthed the fact that Chairman Henry Hyde had once conducted an adulterous affair with the wife of a friend. Hyde brushed the matter aside as a "youthful indiscretion" (though he was over forty at the time of the affair) and insisted that smear tactics would not deter him from his nonpartisan and painful duty to investigate wrongdoing.

There was an October truce while Congress was in recess for midterm elections. On Election Day the voice of the people was heard. For a moment, after a rain of steady setbacks, things seemed to brighten for Clinton. The Democrats kept their forty-five senators and picked up enough House seats to whittle the Republican majority down to a mere handful. One immediate reaction was a Republican flight from Gingrich, whom the party held responsible for the electoral losses. House Republicans staged a revolt and named the more moderate Robert Livingston of Louisiana as Speaker-designate for the incoming 106th Congress, from which Gingrich would resign. Next, during a November hearing, Starr defended his report and stated that in all other areas of investigation—Whitewater, "Filegate," and "Travelgate"—he had found nothing worthy of indictment. Meanwhile, attorneys for Paula Jones reached an agreement to give up their appeal to have the sexual harassment case reinstated—a serious possibility in light of the Starr report revelations—for a financial settlement of $700,000. That threat, at least, was now lifted.

But the momentum of the Judiciary Committee was now unstoppable. In the raucous and mesmerizing hearings, Democratic members charged that the committee was railroading the president on flimsy ground, far short of the "high crimes and misdemeanors" required by the Constitution for impeachment. Republicans countercharged that the case was not about sex, but about lies that denied a wronged citizen the justice that was her rightful due. Duty made it impossible for them to look away, even at the risk of political rejection by an electorate impatient to have the matter settled.

It was all good theater—and none of it swayed minds. On 11 December the committee voted to recommend four articles of impeachment to the full House. One accused the president of lying to Starr's grand jury; another of lying in the Jones suit; a third of obstructing justice by concealing evidence related to the Jones case. A fourth catchall article extended the obstruction charge by citing the president's failure to cooperate with Judiciary Committee's investigation. All of the articles passed on straight party-line votes, 21-16, except for the second article, relating to civil perjury, which passed 20-17.

Now it was up to the entire House, and Republicans who might have settled for censure were being heavily pressured by party whip Tom DeLay to vote to impeach. As the representatives gathered for the crucial session in mid-December 1998 there came the announcement that President Clinton had authorized U.S. air strikes against Iraq for noncompliance with the UN arms inspections, which had been going on since the end of the Gulf War. Democratic Majority Leader Richard Gephardt urged a suspension of the impeachment proceedings until the operation was complete, on the grounds that it would be un-seemly not to have Congress united behind the commander in chief when American troops were risking death. The best he could achieve was one day's grace, as Republicans suspected—with some possible justification—that the timing of the attacks was not accidental.

Then another bombshell exploded. Speaker-designate Livingston learned that the publisher of a pornographic magazine had run an investigation and exposed him as an adulterer. On 19 December, Livingston—the second critic of the president to be exposed as a fellow sexual sinner—addressed the president in absentia. "Sir," he said, "you have done great damage to this nation.... I say that you have the power to terminate the damage and heal the wounds that you have created. You, sir, may resign your post." Shouts of outrage broke out from the Democratic side; some members shouted at Livingston: "You resign!" To their astonishment, he did so. "I must set the example that I hope President Clinton will follow. I will not stand for Speaker of the House on January 6." Livingston resigned his seat and left a shaken House whose members now seemed to be looking into a pit that might engulf them all—a series of exposures that would create what Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat from New York, called "a developing sexual McCarthyism." Minority Leader Richard Gephardt put it clearly. "Fratricide dominates our public debate." But the debate resumed, precisely on the old savage terms of Democratic accusations that the proceedings were a "constitutional assassination" and a "Republican coup d'etat," and countercharges that nothing less was at stake than the future of freedom from arbitrary power.

One of the Judiciary Committee's articles of impeachment was dropped, another defeated during the House vote. The first and third articles—on perjury before the grand jury and obstruction of justice in the Jones case—passed on almost straight party-line votes. Each article carried the fateful penultimate paragraph: "William Jefferson Clinton 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, to the manifest injury of the people of the United States." Following the vote the Republicans caucused to name Illinois representative Dennis Hastert as their Speaker-designate for the next Congress. The 105th Congress then concluded its work. Clinton would go to trial.

Yet the Democrats, in the event, had "won by losing." The initial Republican hope had been for the impeachment to carry a bipartisan imprimatur. But the Democrats had held firm and united in insisting that at most only censure was warranted. The strict party-line votes to impeach hung the label around the process of a partisan maneuver to oust Clinton. That meant that Senate Democrats would almost certainly hold together in voting to acquit, which meant that a two-thirds majority necessary to remove the president could not possibly be reached. It looked as if the Senate trial would be a show the final outcome of which was known from the first day. And so it proved. A small group of senators who neither wished to convict nor to let the president go scot-free hoped for a legitimate "finding of fact" on the charges, and censure, but their efforts failed. With respect to impeachment, the Constitution allowed only for an up or down vote.

The six-week trial was a balancing act among objectives. That of Tom Daschle, the minority leader in the Senate, was simply to hold his forty-five senators together against doubts and possible smoking guns hidden in Starr's files. For Majority Leader Trent Lott, it was to satisfy the desire of Hyde's House managers to present a powerful, if doomed, case. Both Daschle and Lott agreed in their desire to keep the Senate from being tied up for months in what easily could become a media circus. The procedures that they persuaded their colleagues to adopt allowed Hyde and the managers only three witnesses—Lewinsky, Jordan, and Clinton assistant Sidney Blumenthal—who would be seen on videotape, not on the Senate floor. The managers would be allowed several days to make their presentations and arguments, with equal time for rebuttal granted to the president's legal team. And finally the senators would have time to pose questions and make their pro-voting statements. Chief Justice Rehnquist would preside, wearing a black robe he chose to adorn with three Gilbert-and-Sullivan-inspired gold stripes on each sleeve.

While the case moved toward resolution, Clinton demonstrated a political astuteness that maddened his enemies. He made only two public statements, reiterating his "profound remorse" for his "shameful conduct," but vowing that he would reclaim the trust of the American people by carrying out the tasks they had chosen him to accomplish. He then withdrew from the fray and focused on appearing "presidential," busy in the Oval Office and supposedly oblivious to the "partisans" howling and raging against him. In his State of the Union address on 19 January 1999, he was smiling and confident. He recapitulated all the good things that had happened in the United States in 1998 under his guidance, smiled at the Republican side of the chamber, welcomed the usual celebrity guests, and mouthed "I love you" to the First Lady, seated in the gallery. The speech was, in the words of a decidedly unfriendly watcher, the conservative commentator Pat Robertson, "a home run."

On 12 February—Lincoln's birthday—the Senate concluded the trial. On the first count, that of perjury, it found Clinton not guilty 55-45, with ten Republicans in the acquittal column. On the second count, obstruction of justice, it was a dead split, 50-50, five Democrats and five Republicans having joined "the opposition." It was over. As Justice Rehnquist and a disappointed Henry Hyde and managers left the chamber, Tom Daschle and Trent Lott shook hands in the middle of the aisle, proud of having accomplished the objective of a relatively short and dignified proceeding they had established prior to the beginning of the trial. President Clinton spoke briefly after the verdict; when asked if he would "forgive and forget," he answered: "I believe any person who asks for forgiveness has to be prepared to give it." In the end, the public seemed to feel that impeachment itself was sufficient punishment.

In 2002 the historical and political legacy of Clinton's impeachment was still uncertain. For defenders of executive power, the worst-case scenario was that future Congresses of an opposition party could hold an administration hostage to impeachment trials on trivial charges. Those favoring conviction feared that the acquittal had unacceptably lowered the bar for a president's conduct—for what the chief executive might get away with without facing removal. The only historical precedents were Andrew Johnson's trial, after which there was a period of rarely broken congressional supremacy that lasted thirty years, and Watergate, after which there was a period of congressional suzerainty lasting only six years, until the emergence of Ronald Reagan. The events of 11 September 2001 scrambled all predictions of the balance between Congress and the president following an impeachment crisis.

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