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‘I Knew What I Had to Do,’ Livingston Says

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At 2 a.m. Saturday, his mind in turmoil, Bob Livingston arose from his bed and downed a glass of milk to settle himself down.

Four hours later, on the day that the House would impeach President Clinton and two days after acknowledging marital infidelities, the Louisiana Republican had come to a decision.

“I knew what I had to do,” said the man who would have been speaker of the House in the next Congress.

In an interview with The Times late Saturday, Livingston said he realized that he could not go to the House floor and call for Clinton’s resignation--or even cast a vote to impeach the president--unless he too gave up the office he was on the verge of assuming.

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“I knew that I couldn’t make the pitch the way I did--or even vote the way I did--without doing what I did,” said Livingston, sitting with his wife, Bonnie, in their Northern Virginia home.

“I thought it was his finest moment,” added Bonnie Livingston.

The couple, married for 33 years, seemed at ease as they spoke of the tension-filled weeks since Livingston announced, shortly after the Nov. 3 elections, that he would challenge Newt Gingrich of Georgia for the speakership.

Earlier in the week, as Livingston realized that his “indiscretions,” as he had put it, were about to be revealed, another event provided him a different perspective.

On Wednesday, he said, he learned that his very first congressional appointee to the U.S. Naval Academy, a bright young man with whom he has stayed in touch, has been stricken with lung cancer at age 38.

“Nothing can happen to me that could approach that,” Livingston said. “I have my health.”

“I’ve experienced the American dream,” he added. “I started on a shoestring.”

Munching pecans and sipping red wine, the Livingstons laughed easily and frequently about the events leading up to the announcement of his resignation--most heartily of all when they joked that they now might become hippies, having been relieved of the burdens of being speaker-designate.

“Bob’s going to grow a beard,” Bonnie Livingston said.

Still, tinges of regret crept into their voices at times. They noted for instance that a new “speaker’s phone line” had just been installed.

And she recalled how her husband would come home each night with increasing exuberance after a long day on Capitol Hill preparing for the transition.

“I can do this job!” she quoted him as saying.

The couple--their home still guarded by a protective detail--had considered going out to dinner Saturday night but decided not to do so. “I’d have to put a paper bag over his head,” she said.

Livingston seemed ready to look ahead and he and his wife spoke with great enthusiasm about the arrival in two months of their first grandchild.

Livingston indicated that he has no intention of changing his mind, even though many House Republicans and even the president had urged him to reconsider.

“It’s not that bad,” the Louisiana Republican said as he put his feet up on the coffee table. At one point, he referred to himself as a “footnote to history” and “the almost-speaker.”

Livingston said he was gratified by the standing ovation he received from Democrats and Republicans alike after his announcement. He recalled with particular fondness that Reps. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) and Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) came to his office to see him afterward. Both men hugged Livingston.

The tall Louisianian, wearing blue jeans and a white shirt, also said he hoped for a return to civility and bipartisanship in the next Congress--a sentiment expressed by countless lawmakers on Saturday in the wake of his announcement that he would not become speaker and would resign from Congress.

And with great certainty, he spoke of Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) as the next speaker.

“Denny’s a great guy. He will make a great speaker. He’s got it greased,” Livingston said. “He bears no grudges, antagonizes no one and has good judgment. He can reach across the aisle.”

As he contemplated a new future, Livingston burst into a hearty laugh as he realized that “a whole lot of commitments I’ve made” can now be reconsidered. “A whole lot!”

“We’ll have a lot more flexibility now,” Bonnie Livingston added. “We’re not sad.”

And hinting at the prospects of a new career, Livingston noted that “my marketability shouldn’t be too diminished.”

As for posterity, Livingston concluded, “I’d like to think that my footnote in history will be that what I did was right and what Bill Clinton did was wrong.”

Looking across the coffee table at his wife, he added: “The president’s actions were a breach of the public’s trust. My actions were a breach of my wife’s trust.”

After Livingston made his predawn decision, his wife telephoned their four grown children and his mother.

“I just told them that he was going to speak around 9 o’clock and you might want to watch TV,” she recalled.

But she did not tell them of his plans. “I didn’t want them to talk him out of it,” she said.


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