Today, the U.S. House of Representatives stands on the verge of impeaching a president because the national interest has been overwhelmed by the cavalier actions of virtually everybody involved: the president, independent counsel, judiciary, media, the opposition party, Bill Clinton's legion of enemies and his battery of lawyers.
In the aftermath of Watergate, it was often said that the American system worked. From Sen. Sam J. Ervin to Judge John J. Sirica, from Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. to Rep. Peter W. Rodino, from Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee to special prosecutor Leon Jaworski, from the Burger Supreme Court to even President Richard M. Nixon's lawyers--all approached their roles with awe and a sense of heavy responsibility to the nation. In Clinton's case, there will be no such salutary verdict. Years from now, people may look back on the Monica S. Lewinsky saga as a moment of national madness in which almost all the principals were out of control.
In May 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court decided unanimously--and mindlessly--that the Paula Corbin Jones sexual-harassment suit need not be halted before the end of Clinton's presidency, because, in the words of Justice John Paul Stevens, "the burden on the president's time and energy" was not heavy enough. Without that decision, the president's relationship with Lewinsky would have been about private, consensual sex, however tawdry, not about the future of the Republic.
The response to the Supreme Court's edict by the president and his lawyers speaks volumes: a refusal to settle the Jones lawsuit for $700,000 and some sort of statement that would have sent Jones and her well-funded, right-wing supporters into the night.
Indeed, from the moment Lewinsky flashed her thong underwear, Clinton's actions in this national catastrophe have regularly subverted the interests of the United States and the presidency. In his narcissism, Clinton subscribes to the notion that the most important thing for the country is that he remain president--whatever his actions, whatever the cost to the rest of us or to the majesty of his office, not to mention to the goals, now shattered, of the Democratic Party he revitalized.
Here is a man who had yearned since childhood to be president, and then, with the press and Jones' gumshoes tracking any woman who ever crossed his path, entered into an affair that, if disclosed, almost certainly would have put Bob Dole in the White House in 1996.
Clinton's instinctive reaction after being found out was totally in character: to consult with the disgraced (and unprincipled) Richard Morris, who said he'd take an instant poll, then reported back that voters were "willing to forgive [the president] for adultery but not for perjury or obstruction of justice."
"Well, we'll just have to win then," responded Clinton. Truth, which would have served the national interest, and Clinton's, was not an option.
There followed seven months of lying and cover-up, ending with the president's perjurious video appearance before the grand jury--seven months in which the country has been dragged through an ordeal that has weakened the American presidency, emboldened foreign dictators and terrorists, roiled the world's markets, frightened our allies, held us up to ridicule and consumed our politics.
Even now Clinton refuses to best serve the country by dropping his legalisms, whatever the personal danger, and saying what everyone knows: "I lied under oath."
Perhaps nothing illustrates independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's perception of his duty--and the national interest--more than his abortive departure for Pepperdine University in the days when it looked as if his investigation had run out of steam and there was no sex scandal on the horizon.
As significant as any piece of evidence that Starr sent to the House Judiciary Committee was what was not in his salacious package: a single word about Whitewater, the White House travel office or the FBI files. Nor did the prosecutors ask Clinton a single question about any of those matters when he finally appeared before a grand jury.
As my conversations with people involved in Starr's investigation have made clear, he and his staff were convinced that Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton were guilty of obstruction of justice and perjury in Whitewater. And, based largely on the roadblocks thrown up by the White House, the prosecutors had come to believe Clinton was unfit to hold the presidency. But they lacked evidence.
With the arrival of Linda R. Tripp on Starr's doorstep last January, the dry hole Starr's investigators had been digging for four years came in. Now, the prosecutors advanced a plausible theory they believed would prove the president was unfit: that, at the behest of Clinton, Vernon E. Jordan Jr. was arranging jobs for silence in both the Whitewater and Jones cases.
Hence: the breathtaking and revealing (in its disrespect for the office of the president) attempt by Starr and his deputies to persuade Lewinsky to wear a wire to entrap the Clinton. One cannot imagine the Watergate special prosecutor attempting anything similar.
In Nixon's case, the House Judiciary Committee, responding to congressional Democratic and Republican leaders, undertook its investigation with a sense of bipartisan purpose and, above all else, reverence for the Constitution. Not until evidence of Nixon's crimes and their unprecedented and egregious nature had been definitively established was there a willingness to vote articles of impeachment. Already abandoned in Clinton's case is any pretense of following House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde's admonition that impeachment must be bipartisan. The solemn business of removing a president is being addressed with all the gravity and concern for the national weal as a naval-base closing.
The immediate, overwhelming goal of the GOP leadership--including House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and the oleaginous Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas)--is to pummel Clinton through the November elections, then to vote impeachment by the full House. Even then, it is not a sure thing that the GOP majority will agree to any kind of deal that would stave off a Senate vote on whether to convict Clinton.
Republicans view Clinton's shame (and the prospect of impeachment) as payback--payback going back to Watergate, to Robert H. Bork, to Clarence Thomas, to the reprimand of Gingrich, to gays in the military, to "Mrs. President." That is the meaning of much of the sanctimony now issuing from the Republicans, who, in truth, have been dancing on their desks since January, not talking about the Constitution.
It is impossible to consider the undoing of Clinton without dwelling on his enemies, who include not just the deranged conspiracists who want him hanged for allegations of drug-running out of the Mena, Ark., airport and Vincent W. Foster Jr.'s "murder," but the intellectual right and the conservative Christian movement, whose tune congressional Republicans increasingly dance to.
To say that these elements have engaged in a vendetta against Clinton since Jan. 20, 1993, is to understate the facts. No U.S. president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has faced such a virulent opposition, and the venom of the Clinton-haters, in and out of Washington, from Rush Limbaugh to the New York Post, from Pat Robertson to Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), has poisoned the American political well at the expense of decent civic discourse.
Yet, until he met Lewinsky, Clinton had frustrated and outmaneuvered his opposition (and the gotcha sensibility of so much of the post-Watergate press) at almost every turn. Nothing inflames either Clinton's enemies or much of the Washington media elite more than the president's poll numbers since January, which testify to the sophistication and discrimination of most of the population and their grasp of the national interest.
Clinton's transgressions have little in common with Watergate, which was about a vast and pervasive abuse of power by a criminal president who ordered break-ins and fire bombings, impeded the free electoral process, instituted illegal wiretaps and used the Internal Revenue Service as a force for personal retribution. On the Nixon tapes we heard of plots to involve the Central Intelligence Agency and FBI in the cover-up of these activities; in the Clinton grand-jury tape, we learn of efforts to hide a Rockettes blanket.
The national interest requires that the threshold for impeachment be high and that presidents not be driven from office in the fashion of parliamentary democracies. Clinton's ultimate crime may be that he has enabled a bitterly partisan House to vote impeachment, thus lowering the bar for every future president and suggesting that presidential elections are subject to congressional review and the campaigns of political enemies.*