The arrival on Capitol Hill of Ken Starr's report, gift-wrapped in 36 humble cardboard boxes, sounded like the ominous knocking of fate in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. But the real turning point in the Clinton crisis came a week earlier when Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) stood up in the well of the Senate and delivered the speech that changed the course of the Clinton presidency.
"I felt lonely out there," Lieberman said afterward. Like the little boy who alerted the public to the fact that the emperor wore no clothes, Lieberman had the courage to state the obvious. The 24 minutes of his speech changed the terms of the political debate about the president's future. In the process he reminded us that one lonely man, armed with truth, can still change the course of history simply by exercising leadership.
The public response from all corners of the political arena has indeed been phenomenal. But that was by no means assured. In the week before his speech, Lieberman had to endure a gantlet manned by nervous nellies from his own party attempting to wave him off. His party's leader in the Senate, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, considered Lieberman's measured judgments premature. Some of his other colleagues urged him at the Senate Democrats' weekly lunch to be a "team player" and not say a word about the president's behavior. Erskine Bowles, the president's chief of staff, asked him to wait at least until the president had finished his meeting with Boris Yeltsin in Russia. And these were his purported friends. No wonder it "felt lonely out there."
But Lieberman was operating on a different timeline and a different set of priorities. And, in the short span between last week's speech and this week's document dump, he completely transformed the political dynamic. Because of Lieberman's speech and despite the relentless campaign against Starr, the report was received somberly, with Democrats, anxious about their chances in November, being the prime movers in calling for a speedy resolution.
"We have nothing more important to do in the nation's interest," New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said. "We can have this all behind us in six weeks' time if we just get on with it." Democratic Sens. Bob Kerrey, Fritz Hollings, Bob Graham, Max Cleland and Robert Byrd piled on board the Lieberman bandwagon and condemned the president's behavior as "immoral," "indefensible," "an irreversible stain" and "depressing." "We are fed up," said Hollings. "Many of the mistakes that President Nixon made are being made all over again," said Byrd.
Gov. Parris Glendening canceled his scheduled appearance with the president at the Silver Spring Elementary School in Maryland. And Sens. Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski, also of Maryland, were unable to tear themselves away from pressing business elsewhere to attend a presidential appearance in their home state. And then there was a sound coming from the well of the Senate that sounded remarkably like a bell tolling for this president. It was Barbara Boxer lashing out at Bill Clinton--to whom she is related by marriage and whom she has relentlessly defended in the past--calling his conduct "immoral."
Suddenly, the lions of the grand old Democratic Party had found their voice. It was as though Lieberman had given them all the Heimlich maneuver and expelled giant fishbones from their throats. In a staggering demonstration of the power of one man to move mountains, he moved the Democrats' abandonment of the head of their party from the realm of the unthinkable to the realm of the inevitable. Principle and a deep concern for the country are now pulling them in the same direction as expedience and political survival.
When Rep. Paul McHale of Pennsylvania became the first Democrat to call for Clinton's resignation, the Washington cognoscenti explained that McHale was not running for reelection, so he could afford to ignore the president's job approval ratings. But once Boxer, fighting for her political life in California, lashed out at the president from the Senate floor, it became clear that attacking the president is now the politically safe--even necessary--thing to do. Those who are running for reelection have finally had to acknowledge that the trend is unmistakable: Before the voters cast their ballots in November, the president's famed approval ratings--already down seven points in the past two weeks--will have collapsed like an accordion.
Thus will the man who has lived by opinion polls be brought down by the man who ignored them. Lieberman's speech defied both the president's approval ratings and the conventional wisdom that the public doesn't care. The president, trusting in that same statistical salve, ignored the need to face up to the consequences of his conduct by addressing the American people with any degree of sincerity or contrition. Beyond the president's fate, the history books will record this as a victory for leadership and a defeat of government by Gallup.