“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.” –FROM THE ARTICLES OF IMPEACHMENT APPROVED BY THE HOUSE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE
It was around 8 on Thursday night in the White House residence when a small group of advisers quietly started talking about whether it was time for Bill Clinton to grovel again. To their surprise, he was already there: “I”ve been thinking about this for a couple of days,” Clinton said. He had begun scratching out notes about what he would say: not another legal brief–his lawyers had been delivering those all week–but something a little more spiritual, about taking responsibility and accepting punishment and sending the signal that he finally, finally got it.
Some of his aides had something else in mind. They had been listening all week long to the Republican moderates whose votes could save the President from the impeachment that now looks likely to come this week. By Friday, Republican brokers had even fed them some actual lines for him to read, the very script that they thought just might save him–and them–from months of hell. The fence sitters weren”t looking for an apology; they were looking for an admission. Say you lied, and we”ll let you go free.
The words were simple: “I lied to the American people, and I”m sorry.” But Clinton didn”t know what to do with them. Maybe they would be enough to redeem him with those members who were prepared to vote to impeach him mainly because he had never seemed genuinely sorry for anything. But maybe they would kill him too. It”s a trap, his lawyers warned. Admit that you lied, even once, and they will impeach you, then indict you, and then throw you in jail the first chance they get.
This is what happens in Washington now, where everything is personal, no one trusts anybody, the lines are down and the friendships and history have been replaced by bad blood and grudges. And so by the time he had finished his four minutes in the Rose Garden that afternoon, talking about his wrongdoing and his shame and Ben Franklin and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and the whole blue book of his family”s pain and his God-given abilities, the power brokers in the Capitol who had been desperate for some help were slamming down their phones. “What was he thinking?” asked one. “He”d have been better off if he”d just got on the plane and left for his Middle East trip.” Some in the White House who had started the day feeling sick noted that the President was now 0 for 3: every time he opened his mouth about this subject, he made things worse. The Republican reaction was deadly. “It”s like a sniper,” said a G.O.P. source. “You only get one shot, and he missed it.”
Less than 10 minutes after he finished, the House Judiciary Committee began to vote on the first of four articles of impeachment, each one ending, “Wherefore, William Jefferson Clinton, by such conduct, warrants impeachment and trial, and removal from office and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States.”
In a slow-motion year that has seemed to go on forever, it is fair to wonder how we got here so fast. The public has been right about many things much of the year, but was wrong about one thing: going into last week, almost the same vast majority–68%–that opposed impeaching the President did not imagine that it would ever take place. After the November election, when the voters spoke, the G.O.P. crumpled and Newt Gingrich succumbed, many assumed that the impeachment hay wagon had been run off the road, overturned, its wheels spinning in the air.
The public went off contentedly shopping, thinking the matter was all but settled, and with that, the wild rumpus began. The White House decided to go for broke: the President”s allies toasted the death of neo-Puritanism, stopped talking about censure and raised the possibility that there should be no penalty at all. Clinton”s lawyers finally answered those 81 questions that Judiciary chairman Henry Hyde had sent him three weeks before, but the answers were forgetful, slippery and showed no trace of repentance. Impeach me if you dare, Clinton whistled, dancing on their graves.
He was, of course, waltzing into a trap. With Gingrich and Ken Starr gone, the role of tormentor fell to majority whip Tom DeLay, the diminutive former fire-ant exterminator from Texas who knew enough to lie low and deny Clinton a repellent foil. Alone onstage with his weaselly answers, Clinton isn”t all that appealing either. He made things worse by golfing a lot. As Georgia”s Bob Barr, the Judiciary Committee”s hangman, said with precise accuracy this week: “One of the faults of the White House, I think, is that they have a tendency–maybe this President personally, perhaps–to break out the champagne or light up the victory cigar a little bit early sometimes.”
A White House governed by polls has trouble reading politicians who are bent on ignoring them. Clinton had waited all year for the Lewinsky affair to be out of the hands of the courts and dumped in the laps of the lawmakers. The framers, after all, had designed impeachment as a political rather than a legal process, handled not by unelected judges but by the most transparently accountable branch, the legislators who have to face voters every two years. With Clinton”s approval ratings still in orbit and the opposition to impeachment screaming from every last poll, it was easy for the President”s men to imagine that they were over the rainbow.
Except that this House doesn”t work that way. The people that count this time are not the 269 million Americans or even the 435 House members, but only the 30 or so moderate Republicans, all on the political version of the endangered-species list, who come from places where most people cling religiously to the radical middle and fear the intensity of right and left. For those members the question was simple: Party or country?
Many want to see Clinton pay, but not at the price of shredding the presidency. Some were just holding out for something they have never before seen from this President: a flat, clear admission of wrongdoing, stripped of self-pity or sophistry, that would allow them to spank him and move on. And others were weighing how hard it would be to fight off a conservative challenger in their next primary. “You”ve got the facts and law about impeachment,” says Delaware”s Michael Castle, “but the bottom line is that for every member, there is a lot of politics involved in this decision.”
Meanwhile, DeLay was spreading the word: most voters are against impeachment because they think it means removing Clinton from office. When they see that impeachment is really just “supercensure” or the “ultimate censure,” as the Judiciary Committee”s Bill McCollum of Florida has described it, they will not revolt; in two years they will not even remember. Your conservative base will be placated and your moderates won”t care, because Clinton won”t have gone anywhere except down in history. Which is also a happy thing for Republicans, according to DeLay. “The good politics, by the way, is to leave the President in office,” DeLay told TIME. “He”s the best thing that”s happened to this party.”
By early this month, the tide had turned, and Clinton was back in his own personal Hitchcock movie. At meetings on Social Security, where he would normally cartwheel through one proposal after another, he sat fatefully quiet, sullen and completely distracted. “They tell me,” Clinton remarked to a longtime aide on Dec. 4, “the votes are probably there for this thing.” Another adviser told Time later that it was “probably the worst I”d ever seen him. It”s not fuzzy anymore. He really, really, really gets the idea that this is going to be a big, permanent stain on his record.”
And so two weeks ago the White House that for a moment had considered not mounting any defense at all was suddenly demanding four days to make its case last week–a sign that it was worried and playing for time. “Mr. Chairman,” said the President”s lawyer Greg Craig, “I am willing to concede that in the Jones deposition, the President”s testimony was evasive, incomplete, misleading, even maddening–but it was not perjury.” The message to the moderates was direct: This President is a hound dog, but that”s not an impeachable offense.
But for some reason, the White House forgot to tell its panel of legal scholars to stow the Ivy League condescension and assume a humbler pose. If you vote for impeachment, said Princeton”s Sean Wilentz in a high-pitched, insinuating voice, you will be cast forever as “zealots and the fanatics [who] have done far more to subvert respect for the framers, for representative government and for the rule of law than any crime that has been alleged against President Clinton, and your reputations will be darkened for as long as there are Americans who can tell the difference between the rule of law and the rule of politics.”
That afternoon, the mood went from bad to worse. In trying to show that the Lewinsky affair was no Watergate, the White House exhumed some of the most partisan veterans of the 1974 Judiciary Committee. Wayne Owens, a former Democratic member from Utah, said it was the current committee”s fault that “they gave to America, to the seven- and eight-year-olds, the knowledge or raised the question of what oral sex is, what telephone sex is and what you can do with a cigar sexually.” And Father Robert Drinan, the ultraliberal former member from Massachusetts, predicted that the committee would “go down in the history books as one that was dominated by vindictiveness and by vengeance and by partisanship.” Representative Howard Coble of North Carolina, who sometimes sounds like he”s still got a place on Mayberry R.F.D., reacted by challenging Drinan, still in clerical garb, to a rumble. “We”re going about our business,” Coble croaked. “And if anybody thinks that vengeance is involved, I”ll meet them in the parking lot later on tonight.”
On the second day the grownups returned. A team of former criminal justice officials argued that few in their profession would consider taking Clinton to court for lying about sex, and none would win a conviction. By the time the White House aides finally let America meet the President”s counsel, the reclusive Charles Ruff, they were making concessions they had refused to make for months. Ruff walked right up to the line of admitting that Clinton lied, stopping just short of the red zone. Clinton”s testimony in the Jones case, said Ruff, was misleading. “Reasonable people, and you maybe have reached that conclusion, could determine that he crossed over that line and that what for him was truthful but misleading or nonresponsive and misleading or evasive was, in fact, false. But in his mind–and that is the heart and soul of perjury–he thought and he believed that what he was doing was being evasive but truthful.”
Then Ruff made his plea: “Let each member assume that Ms. Lewinsky”s version of the events is correct, and then ask, “Am I prepared to impeach the President because after having admitted having engaged in egregiously wrongful conduct, he falsely described the particulars of that conduct?”” It was a lawyer”s last stand, a final appeal to save a client from the congressional equivalent of indictment. In effect, Ruff was saying, “You know he lied and we know he lied. The only disagreement is what we ought to do about it.”
If the defense was arguing that Bill Clinton should not be held to a higher standard than any other criminal defendant, the Republicans were arguing that a President must be. If the nation”s chief law-enforcement officer can get away with lying under oath, whatever the subject, then the rule of law collapses, and everyone else walks. “We”ve got to do it for the children,” Representative Steve Chabot of Ohio said later.
But no Republican, not even Ken Starr, cut through the President”s mortar as efficiently as David Schippers, a Democrat hired by Hyde as majority counsel. In an angry, sarcastic and merciless presentation delivered in a penetrating Chicago twang, Schippers drilled holes in Clinton”s words, deeds and character, arguing that the President had lied repeatedly under oath, obstructed justice by helping Lewinsky get a job and encouraged everyone around him to do the same. “He lied to the people, he lied to his Cabinet, he lied to his top aides, and now he”s lied under oath to the Congress of the U.S. There”s no one left to lie to.”
Schippers played a tape recording of Clinton”s testimony in the Jones case, and the committee room went silent as Clinton hemmed and hawed over whether he was ever alone with Lewinsky. Clinton sat stony-faced through another piece of tape when his lawyer, Bob Bennett, insisted to the judge that Lewinsky had signed an affidavit stating that she and the President had never had sex. And Schippers referred to the famous Clintonian phrase “it depends on what the meaning of is is” from the August session with the grand jury. “That single declaration,” Schippers said, “reveals more about the character of the President than perhaps anything else in the record… Can you imagine dealing with such a person on any important matter?”
The Republican express slowed only briefly when, on Friday, Democrats complained that Hyde and his allies were dodging their request to specify exactly which of the President”s many sworn statements about Lewinsky were perjurious. The reason, argued Barney Frank of Massachusetts, was that the offending statements were all about sex, and there was no way for the Republicans to dress up something so salacious except by hiding it. “Did the President touch her here or did he not touch her here?” said Frank. “They do not want to take that to the [House] floor and to the Senate. That”s their dilemma. Because if they are specific, they are trivial.”
Hyde dismissed the complaint, and the committee proceeded with voting on the articles, along party lines. “This vote says something about us,” said Hyde on Friday night. “It answers the question, Just who are we, and what do we stand for? Is the President one of us, or is he a sovereign? We vote for our honor, which is the only thing we get to take with us to the grave.”
All the while, as the public morality play went on in the Judiciary Committee, the private drama unfolded in hundreds of conversations among moderate Republicans, their party leaders and staff members stranded in the empty halls of the Capitol. Both sides insisted they weren”t whipping the vote, but behind the scenes, every manner of pressure was applied: DeLay and his lieutenants worked from Texas and Washington, tracking down members who during the recess were overseas or unreachable. Committee chairmen gently reminded members of old favors. In a clever bit of jujitsu, Republicans claimed the White House was trying to buy support with oblique suggestions that a vote for Clinton might free up funds for disaster relief. In fact, the Republicans had more to trade, but the Democrats had lots more to lose, which probably made it a fair fight.
Hiding somewhere behind the scenes was the next House Speaker, Bob Livingston, who is so concerned about striking the right note with the American people when he finally takes over that he is missing the most important moment of his tenure. He cut a deal with outgoing Speaker Gingrich to put a moderate colleague from Illinois, Ray LaHood, in the Speaker”s chair during the sure-to-be-televised-everywhere floor debate Thursday. Even in private, Livingston is hard to pin down: he refused in a telephone conversation with House minority leader Dick Gephardt on Wednesday even to discuss censure. “No comment,” he told Gephardt. Conservatives, who forced Gingrich out, worried all week that Livingston would not fight for impeachment. It was not until Saturday that Livingston indicated that he opposed consideration of censure by the full House.
White House aides worked overtime in a hastily assembled war room on the first floor of the West Wing, where business lobbyists were asked to call lawmakers and donors were urged to phone wavering Republicans. Intermediaries issued invitations to come over and meet the President when he returns from the Middle East on Tuesday. Around the nation, state Democratic parties organized phone-a-thons on behalf of the President in districts held by moderate Republicans. Appeals went out over the Internet, and Working Assets, the long-distance company that uses a portion of its proceeds to fund liberal causes, set up a ” 1-877-TO-MOVE-ON ” phone line to connect voters with their representatives. Geraldine Ferraro pitched in too: she worked the phones, calling Representatives Connie Morella of Maryland and Tillie Fowler of Florida for some girl talk. To the buttoned-up-right-to-her-brow Fowler, Ferraro made a down-and-dirty pitch: “Tillie, a man is a man is a man.”
There were a few wins for the President”s team, but they didn”t promise much. New York Governor George Pataki endorsed censure over impeachment, and outgoing New York Senator Alfonse D”Amato said impeachment would be a “grave mistake.” Democrats cheered when Representative Amo Houghton, also of New York, came aboard. But Houghton, a multimillionaire former chief of Corning Glass Works, is the very embodiment of a Rockefeller Republican. “It”s all fine and good,” said a depressed Democratic vote counter in the House. “But it”s not exactly a score. I mean, if we don”t get Amo Houghton, Clinton”s going to the big house.”
It fell to New York”s Peter King, the leader of the rump Republicans, to explain why he couldn”t bring more along. “They feel it is a moral test,” says King, who has been lobbying hard for censure. “By voting against impeachment, are they supporting this immoral behavior, saying it”s O.K. for the President to lie and have sex with an intern in the White House?”
Moderate Republican Bob Franks was waiting last Friday with a blue pen, a white pad and a can of Dr Pepper in front of the TV in the study of his Berkeley Heights, N.J., home when the President began to speak. For days Franks had been signaling the White House that he would vote against impeachment if Clinton would just come clean. “As the President started speaking, I started jotting down a couple of phrases,” remembers Franks. “Then I just stopped when it was clear that he wasn”t going to make an admission. I just looked at the screen and shook my head. If he had told the truth, that he had broken the law, he would have saved the nation from the ordeal of an impeachment and saved his presidency.” Within an hour, Franks announced that he will vote to impeach this week.
Rather than providing a way out, Clinton”s speech opened another one of those miniature windows into his soul. He talked about how hard it was to “hear yourself called deceitful and manipulative” but never admitted that he was those things. He attributed his 11 months of stonewalling and deception to his “shame” over what he had done, the one quality he has never shown. He continued to thread his presidency between the words misled and lied.
After the speech, his aides explained that Clinton had several reasons for leaving some things unsaid. He feels he has already done more penance than any other public official, and justifiably wonders where it will end. “It”s a bit of Lucy with the football,” said an official. “The bar does keep getting raised.” But the main reason Clinton rejected the L word on Friday is that he continues to insist that he didn”t lie under oath. “It”s very simple,” an aide explained. “He doesn”t believe it.”
It was a fitting irony–the one time it would have helped him to shave the truth, to just pretend for a minute that he agreed that he was a perjurer–he couldn”t bring himself to do it. By Saturday there was still no stampede to save Clinton, and both Democratic and Republican head counters said the momentum seemed to remain against the President. When it became clear that the speech had fallen short, some White House officials hinted that he might have to try one more time before the House vote. Others argued that the apology was actually embedded in the text, that he might explicitly apologize for lying someday, once censure was safely in hand. (The speech, and its reference to “rebuke and censure,” had no effect on the committee: on Saturday it rejected a Democratic censure resolution, 22-14.)
The only person more allergic to impeachment than Clinton was Senate majority leader Trent Lott, who made little secret of his desire that the whole thing just go away. He knows that a trial, which could take weeks if not months (and require members to listen patiently from their uncomfortable seats), would anger his caucus, bog down his party and make bipartisan progress on other issues virtually impossible for months. “He don”t want no trial,” said a Lott confidant this week.
But Lott too was dusting off procedures not used on a President since Andrew Johnson in 1868. Lott met quietly with Tom Daschle, his Democratic counterpart, to discuss how to keep things civil should a trial get under way next year. Last week some Senators began to discuss the possibility that a censure deal could be cut after the House votes. Under this scenario, Clinton might be impeached by the House but then offer to accept censure, a fine and some written statement rather than face trial in the Senate. That way the Republicans could ink their black mark in the history books and still avoid the trial.
But it is not clear that G.O.P. conservatives in the Senate, who already fear that Lott is too eager to make deals with the White House, will allow him to avoid the unpleasant proceeding. And Clinton, more Andrew Johnson than Richard Nixon, may decide that he might as well take his chances on the Senate floor, where the numbers are in his favor. The Constitution requires a two-thirds majority, or 67 votes, for removal from office, something Lott will be hard pressed to muster in a chamber with only 55 Republicans, several of them proudly moderate. With rules like that–and in the stately confines of the Senate–the odds may finally be in Clinton”s favor.
Read more: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,140771,00.html#ixzz1ES7vD6Sp