As talk spreads of impeachment proceedings against President Clinton, some of the president's staunchest supporters are concerned that his refusal to explain his relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky is seriously endangering his presidency.
A recent poll of 100 congressional staff members found 43% of Republicans and 21% of Democrats predicting that, if Clinton does not resign, the House Judiciary Committee will conduct impeachment hearings soon based on evidence gathered by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.
Republican approval of an additional $1.3 million for the Judiciary Committee has been denounced by Democrats as a move to beef up the committee staff for an impeachment inquiry. Although Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) denied that the money is for that purpose, House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) acknowledged that the funds could be spent to examine Starr's evidence. The independent counsel is investigating allegations that Clinton and Lewinsky engaged in oral sex in the White House, a charge that the president has denied under oath, and that Clinton may have sought to have the former intern lie about the matter.
Even without impeachment proceedings, Clinton could be so weakened by the Starr investigation that he would be unable to function during his final three years in office.
"I worry more about the slow, drip-drip process and the price he's paying in terms of his ability to lead the country," said Leon E. Panetta, Clinton's former chief of staff. "You can see it now in terms of issues Congress is dealing with--education, day care, health care, foreign policy--issues that are extremely important to the country and are not getting a lot of attention."
Declaring that he still considers himself loyal to Clinton, Panetta said that, if he still were chief of staff, he would advise the president to live up to his bond of trust with the American people and "tell the truth of what's involved" in his relationship with Lewinsky.
ABC-TV commentator George Stephanopoulos, a former senior Clinton aide whose broadcast remarks raising the possibility of impeachment brought accusations of disloyalty from the White House, countered that loyalty is a "two-way street." He accused the president of breaking a "loyalty contract" with the American public by asking people to lie.
Stephanopoulos, who made his comments at a recent USC journalism seminar, said:
"I don't think loyalty should require you to lie. I don't think a president is loyal to his people if he either knowingly asks them to lie or asks them to say things which he realizes are not very credible, asks them to take him on his word without giving them reasons to take him at his word. And I think that is the trap that the president has set right now."
Another former senior Clinton administration official, who declined to be identified, also worried that the president will face impeachment proceedings. Although Clinton has artfully deflected the charges so far, the official said, "at some point the cards just have to come tumbling down, because it's just one allegation after another."
And in a withering editorial, Albert Eisele, a Democrat and editor of The Hill, a weekly that covers Congress, wrote that Clinton "has disgraced and degraded the presidency and betrayed his family and friends, his party and his country."
"Americans are willing to forgive their elected officials almost anything as long as they tell the truth," wrote Eisele, who served as press secretary to former Vice President Walter F. Mondale. "We do not believe that Clinton has done that in the present case, and we don't know if he will, or is even able to, without exposing himself to charges of perjury.
"As a result, he must explain and justify the all-too-human failings that he managed to conceal from the American people even as he persuaded them to entrust him with the highest office in the land."
In interviews, several other prominent Washington Democrats who declined to be identified expressed concern that Republicans are preparing for an impeachment inquiry and that Clinton is playing into their hands by refusing to be more forthcoming about his relationship with Lewinsky.
Said one Democrat: "I just talked with two Democratic governors, and both said they were disgusted by the whole thing on a personal basis. But on a political level, everybody has to be in the same boat for now because they don't want to screw up the congressional elections in November."
Despite such concerns, Bob Squires, a senior political advisor to Clinton, pointed out that the president continues to ride high in public-opinion polls. He said he attended a recent South Carolina political rally at which Clinton's appearance in a film presentation got "unbelievable applause."
"You've got to go outside the Beltway to find out about the country," Squires declared. "There's no evidence to say that things have changed at all. People like this president. They like his policies. And they like their lives as a result."
However, Andrew Kohut, a Pew Charitable Trust pollster, said the president would face a deep drop in public support if the focus of public debate "turns from sexual allegations to whether he lied or suborned perjury."
Agreeing with Kohut, a former Democratic Party official said: "If the president's polls start going south, he has generated enough ill will by this time that he will have political problems in the party. Underneath those remarkably strong approval ratings there are troubling internal numbers about trust and ethics."
Panetta said that, no matter what polls show, Clinton is paying an emotional and political price for refusing to explain his relationship with Lewinsky. "I take him at his word that there's nothing there, but he has to explain what the relationship was. The longer it goes on, I feel it will diminish the accomplishments of his outstanding presidency.
"I want him to go down in history as someone who left a tremendous legacy, particularly with regard to the economy of this country, but he has to get beyond this issue . . ," he said.
"You can't assume that all this stuff is not taking a personal toll. Deep down it keeps churning, you can't just ignore it. When I was there, he would rise above the issues that aggravated him, but you would see how it was taking a toll on him emotionally. After all, he's a human being."
Other sources suggested that although Clinton keeps a stiff upper lip in public and focuses on major issues, he agonizes over his situation in private.
Sources said his agony has been obvious to people such as former President Jimmy Carter and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who have consulted with the president privately since his Lewinsky ordeal began.
Carter met with Clinton two days after the Lewinsky case first made headlines and newscasts Jan. 21. The two presidents spent almost an hour and a half discussing Iraq, Iran, Middle East peace and other major issues.
Clinton never brought up the Lewinsky matter, but sources said that, just before the session ended, Clinton mentioned that something needed to be done about independent counsels, that they are making it difficult to govern. "And in my instance, pray for me," a source quoted the president as telling Carter, a Baptist Sunday school teacher.