Bernard A Weisberger. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
It has traditionally been the case that twice-elected presidents, no matter how successful their first term, have rocky rides in the second. Even George Washington suffered editorial denunciations after 1796. Jefferson left office amid the wreckage of his despised Embargo Act (1807). Jackson was officially censured by the Senate after being reelected in 1832. Franklin D. Roosevelt suffered major political setbacks in 1937 and 1938 and conceivably would not have won—or even been a candidate for—a third term had war not broken out in 1939. Nixon had Watergate and Ronald Reagan Iran-Contra. Bill Clinton managed to extend and exceed the pattern with the Monica Lewinsky scandal. It resulted in his becoming the first duly elected president in U.S. history to be impeached, tried, and acquitted by the Senate (Andrew Johnson, impeached in 1868, had been elected vice president and succeeded Lincoln after his death). It was a distinction that the man from Hope, however eager to leave his mark on history, could hardly have enjoyed.
The Lewinsky scandal, which took more than a year to play out its course, dominated and overshadowed other aspects of Clinton’s lame-duck turn on the national stage. In itself a sordid tale of lust, weakness, and arrogance on his part, and of political malice and vindictiveness on that of his accusers, it nonetheless raised serious questions about the meaning of the impeachment clause of the Constitution, the possible political abuse of the process, and the future course of congressional-presidential relations. These were left unanswered by the president’s ambiguous victory. The problem for a historian of the episode is in separating the weighty political and cultural issues at its core from the mass of surrounding sleaze. One other serious aspect of the event is its reawakening of the always fascinating question of how the private character of a chief executive affects his role as a national leader. Can anything be learned about the Clinton administration as a whole from the astonishing contrast between the intelligent, politically sensitive, and skillful Bill Clinton of two winning presidential campaigns, and the Bill Clinton who risked his family and the career he had spent a lifetime building for short-lived sexual gratification? That, too, remains an open question.
The one certainty is that the impeachment fitted into the defeat-and-comeback pattern that had marked Clinton’s rise to the top. The House vote that placed him on trial for his political life before the Senate took place only two years and one month after his 1996 reelection, which itself followed by just two years the humiliation of having the Democrats lose control of the Congress on his watch. And in the fall of 2000, only eighteen months after his acquittal, his standing in popularity polls was so high that had there been no constitutional amendment prohibiting it, he might well have run successfully for a third term.
There are no simple explanations with Clinton. But clearly, his interludes of success owed much to his flexibility, persuasiveness, and good luck in holding office in relatively prosperous and peaceful times. The first year of the second term gave evidence of all three.
Holding the Center
Consistent with the pragmatic remaking of his liberal image that had followed defeat in the 1980 Arkansas gubernatorial race, Clinton had begun a rightward shift immediately following the 1994 congressional debacle. In his 1995 State of the Union address, he uttered the words “The era of big government is over,” and the following year signed welfare-reform legislation that severely limited the decades-old Democratic liberal commitment to making Washington a major source of assistance. He kept on course toward a balanced federal budget, and renewed his endorsement of the tight-money, anti-inflationary fiscal policies of Alan Greenspan, whom he reappointed as chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. While this dismayed his liberal advisers, the 1996 election results showed that it had not cost him the support of the Democratic party’s traditional working-class and minority base. He had won 60 percent of the vote of “labor-affiliated” Americans and 80 percent of the nonwhite vote.
In his second inaugural address in January 1997, therefore, Clinton felt free to advocate “a new government for a new century—humble enough not to try to solve all our problems for us, but strong enough to give us the tools to solve our problems for ourselves; a government that is smaller, lives within its means, and does more with less.” Yet on the other hand, he promised, this limited and more frugal government would lead the nation into a triumphant twenty-first century, in which “schools will have the highest standards in the world… and the doors of higher education will be opened to all,” where “the knowledge and power of the Information Age will be within reach… of every classroom, every library, and every child,” where crime-free streets would “echo again with the laughter of our children,” and “new miracles of medicine at last will reach not only those who can claim care now but the children and hardworking families too long denied.” Of course, the United States would also maintain a strong defense, promote peace and freedom, and as “the world’s greatest democracy [would] lead a whole world of democracies.” Likewise, it would be “a nation that fortifies the world’s most productive economy even as it protects the great natural bounty of our water, air, and majestic land.” Finally, this “land of new promise” would reform its politics “so that the voice of the people will always speak louder than the din of narrow interests.”
So there it was—ambitious promises to strengthen education and health care, clean up the environment and politics and the crime-ridden streets—somehow without enlarging the presence and spending of the government. The move to the center was confirmed by Clinton’s own choice of a second-term team. This time there would be no nominees with hidden liabilities such as Zoë Baird, Clinton’s first-term choice for attorney general, ultimately withdrawn; no controversial choices such as that of law professor Lani Guinier to head the Civil Rights division of the Justice Department, who became such a target for conservative ire that Clinton withdrew her name even before hearings began. The most senior department, State, got a new chief and its first female head in the person of Madeleine Albright, a longtime insider who proposed no particularly radical changes in the nation’s foreign policy. Janet Reno continued as attorney general. Andrew M. Cuomo, son of the liberal Democratic former governor of New York, Mario M. Cuomo, gave a liberal tint to the Department of Housing and Urban Development as its new secretary. The new secretaries of Labor and Transportation were African Americans; the new ambassador to the United Nations, Hispanic, and Clinton even included a Republican, the former U.S. senator William Cohen, as his new secretary of defense. Positions at the Treasury and Commerce Departments were filled by appointees respected in investment and banking circles. All were presumably competent; none would rock the boat.
Clinton caught a break early in his second term when House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had orchestrated the Republican takeover of Congress in Clinton’s first term, was found guilty in 1997 by his congressional colleagues of misapplying tax-exempt donations to his educational foundations, and was fined and reprimanded. Though Gingrich continued to serve as Speaker, his rebuke suggested a weakening in the power of the cadre of right-wing revolutionaries that he had helped bring into office in 1994. Given Clinton’s step toward center-right, and this possible movement of the Republicans toward the same position, it seemed as if Clinton could realize one of the final promises of his second inaugural speech, a truce to partisanship. Noting that the voters had chosen a president and Congress of different parties, he declared that they surely “did not do this to advance the politics of petty bickering and extreme partisanship…. They call on us instead to be repairers of the breach, and to move on with America’s mission.” The statement was vintage Clinton—a touch of evangelical zeal and a carefully calibrated set of nods and bows to both right and left, calculated to appease.
Continued prosperity also seemed to promise concord. The economy continued to show growth, low inflation, and low unemployment. Though millions of families still lacked health insurance and job security, and struggled to make ends meet by juggling family commitments with multiple jobs, the managerial and professional workers who were the backbone of the new middle class found the United States a goodly dwelling place, and wanted no political wrangling to disturb the idyll.
But the new Era of Good Feelings was not to be. In 1997 the 105th Congress made no headway in dealing with major issues such as rising medical costs and the codification of standards pertaining to patients’ rights; environmental degradation and toxic waste cleanup; campaign finance reform; and the increasing concentration of ownership and wealth by a relatively small segment of the American populace. Proposals on these issues, and on measures such as giving the president fast-track authority to conclude trade agreements, were stymied, not only by partisanship but by the conflicting pressures of lobbying groups that neutralized each others’ influence. Under a 1996 law, Clinton had new budgetary authority to exercise the “line-item veto” over individual parts of appropriations bills. (This was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1998.) But he could only deny expenditures, not restore cuts, and 1997 ended with another budget standoff. The president refused to sign pared-down appropriations bills unless a few of his favored programs, such as more money for teacher training and modest boosts in the number of subsidized housing units, were reinserted. Yet given his own embrace of budget balancing (which, along with a surplus, was achieved in the spring of 1998), the debate was not so much about which initiatives should be robustly nourished as it was over parceling out what was left in balanced budgets after defense and other priorities had been met.
Nor did the president’s apparent move to attach himself to such “Republican” issues as fiscal responsibility silence the steady drumbeat of attacks from the more ardent wing of the opposition. Accusations of improper fund-raising during the 1996 campaign dogged the White House. Clinton was denounced for “selling” audiences with himself and overnight invitations to the White House for campaign cash. The vice president was charged with making illegal calls from the Executive Office in search of contributions. Money from foreign sources—strictly forbidden—had also supposedly flowed into Democratic coffers through intermediaries. One donor country was China, which wanted to encourage Clinton’s efforts to bring it into the international trading community despite public outcry over its human rights abuses. Meantime, the Whitewater probe ground on, producing more file cabinets full of depositions and securing convictions of some of the Clintons’ Arkansas associates.
And then in January 1998 the name of Monica Lewinsky first appeared in newscasts; the unfolding story would, throughout the entire year, transfix the nation and imperil the Clinton presidency.
The Year of Unintended Consequences
The story had actually begun in 1994, when Paula Corbin Jones, a former clerical worker for the state of Arkansas, filed a sexual harassment suit in federal district court in Arkansas. She alleged that in 1991, then-governor Clinton, catching sight of her at a public function, had sent a state trooper to invite her to a room at the Excelsior Hotel in Little Rock. Jones claimed Clinton exposed himself to her and suggested that she perform oral sex on him. Though Jones was not threatened with any reprisals when she refused, she nonetheless sued for recompense for her humiliation, pain, and fear of future reprisals. Clinton’s lawyers appealed for the dismissal or postponement of the suit as an infringement on the attention and time of the president, from which the national interest might suffer, especially in a time of crisis. The counterargument was that a president could be in office for up to eight years. A reasonable plaintiff’s case could be seriously damaged by such a delay—witnesses might die, recollections might fade, materials could be lost. The president was not blessed with “sovereign immunity” and was a citizen like any other.
The president, however, had a pragmatic argument on his side. Lawsuits against future presidents could become a potent political weapon. If well-heeled opponents could finance one frivolous suit after another, they could destroy a president’s public reputation and his effectiveness. And in fact, in her legal battle against Clinton, Jones was receiving financial support from several wealthy backers including Richard Scaife, who was outspoken in his dislike of the president on both personal and political terms.
Nevertheless, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997 decided that the Jones lawsuit could go forward, and so opened the gate into a steadily widening labyrinth. Jones’s lawyers were now entitled to attempt to establish a “pattern of conduct” in Clinton’s past that would lend credibility to her accusation. They began to collect and probe every rumor of Clinton’s past sexual dalliances, and in the process encountered the name of a young woman named Monica Lewinsky, who had been a White House intern in 1995 and 1996. Lewinsky had confided in telephone conversations to a coworker and presumed friend, Linda Tripp, that she had what she thought of as a love affair with the president, including clandestine sexual encounters in the White House and exchanges of gifts. Unknown to Lewinsky, Tripp taped the calls, and the tapes eventually found their way into the hands of Kenneth Starr, the Whitewater special prosecutor, and also, possibly improperly, into those of Jones’s attorneys.
The Jones legal team now compelled Clinton to answer questions about Lewinsky. In his deposition in 1998, he denied having had sexual relations with her, which she confirmed by affidavit. Starr’s office, with proof in hand that the denials were false, now had a powerful weapon to deploy. Illicit presidential sex was shameful but not a crime deserving special prosecution. But if a chief executive sworn to uphold the law lied under oath, it was an assault on the judicial system itself. Starr now sought permission from the attorney general to add the alleged perjury to the list of charges under his scrutiny. Reno, already under fire for refusing to launch a new special investigation into White House fund-raising, had little choice but to acquiesce.
The trap began to close. Starr summoned witnesses from the White House personnel rosters, including Lewinsky, who at first refused to testify on grounds of self-incrimination. Clinton himself had been busy at the time of the Jones deposition, discussing with Lewinsky what she might say to explain their meetings, trying to arrange a corporate job for her through his political friend Vernon Jordan, and involving his secretary Betty Currie, both in cover stories and in helping to conceal gifts he had given Lewinsky. These actions could be seen as attempts to obstruct justice.
While the legal machinery whirred and clanked, Clinton had to deal with the public relations and political firestorm ignited when the story hit the media. The president informed his advisers and cabinet, and then went on television to tell the nation—wagging his finger for emphasis—that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” Through the spring, the rumors swarmed and suppurated, overshadowing all else. A break seemed to fall the president’s way in April 1998 when the Jones suit was dismissed in a lower court as unwarranted, since no harm to the plaintiff was proven. But it was too late to save him from two shattering revelations in July and August. On 28 July, under a grant of immunity by Starr’s office, Lewinsky agreed to testify. In an appearance before a federal grand jury convened by Starr, she reversed her original denial and confirmed a relationship with Clinton in abundant detail. To clinch matters, she produced a dress she had worn at one of the trysts, never cleaned and still carrying a smear of dried semen. Under court order, the president of the United States on 30 August provided a sample of his DNA from scrapings inside his cheek. The laboratory report brought the devastating and cold truth. DNA matches showed the semen to be Bill Clinton’s.
Now Clinton was called on to testify. After long negotiations it was agreed that he could be deposed in the White House on videotape that was carried on a closed circuit to the grand jury. In four hours of grilling by Starr’s staff, Clinton split hairs and haggled over words to prove that he had not actually lied in the Jones case, since he had never really “had sex” with Lewinsky as he understood the term. (His understanding seemed to be limited to conventional intercourse.)
But the legalistic bobbing and weaving, designed to avert a criminal prosecution, did not get to the heart of Clinton’s personal behavior. He had lied to his closest associates, who innocently repeated his lies to others. He had lied to his wife. And he had lied to the country.
Questions buzzed in Washington’s muggy mid-August air. What would Clinton do? What would the people think? What was the duty of Congress? What direction would both political parties take? Were these impeachable offenses? If not, could they merely be overlooked, without appalling consequences to faith in law and leadership? No one had firm answers; strategies were evolved on the fly, and events seemed to unfold without any sense of direction.
The situation was unprecedented. For the third time in twenty-four years the country was facing the possible ouster of an elected president. But Watergate (1974) and Iran-Contra (1987) had been resolved short of an actual Senate trial. Nixon resigned on the advice of senior Republican senators, and in 1987 Democrats had tacitly agreed to make Reagan’s subordinates, not the president himself, the target.
But at least three elements made 1998 different. The first was Clinton’s determination to fight it out. He remains something of a riddle—the protean personality who could be a Rhodes scholar and “policy wonk,” yet have irresistible popular appeal on the campaign trail. The practical politician with an unusual ability to focus on the issues he thought of as central, but who had a violent temper, a streak of gluttony, and a reckless compulsion to sexual adventure. In a strange way, he resembled Richard Nixon. Inner demons (of different kinds) seemed to drive both these men of calculating intelligence into self-destructive behavior better explained by psychiatry than political science. Yet both their stories carried a clear political message: Because of the power of the modern presidency, the office and the nation can be significantly at risk when the conduct of the chief magistrate is unbecoming, let alone unethical or illegal.
A second new element was the information revolution. Clinton was no more goatish, according to fairly well-established evidence, than John F. Kennedy. And surely there were presidents in the past guilty of sexual indiscretions during their tenure. But earlier journalistic codes kept a bright line between the personal and public doings of officeholders. Alcoholics, homosexuals, and philanderers remained “in the closet” even when insiders knew the truth. It was not entirely a matter of ethics. Major newspapers and media outlets were themselves institutions with a built-in interest in good relations with government and the stability of the system of contacts and access. But by the 1990s there was a general frankness about sexual matters that loosened previous inhibitions on reporting subjects once considered “not fit to print.” Television talk shows and “celebrity” magazines had democratized gossip and even made disdain for it appear somewhat “elitist.”
And then there was the Internet. Any rumor could be posted either in an officially recognized Web magazine or by an independent operator un-afraid of libel suits. What should the editors of establishment newspapers, newsmagazines, and news networks do when made aware of such stories? They could, of course, ignore them. But if competitors broke the story, the righteous self-deniers could lose audiences to their rivals, and that was a fearsome prospect. The media themselves had become gigantic business enterprises, often absorbed into mega-corporations with interests in many diverse operations. With large amounts of capital invested in “information packaging,” risks could not be taken with the bottom line. So, the “respectable” press, when confronted with the latest “dirt,” could not, or at least did not, turn up a fastidious nose. It followed the story, and by that very act elevated it to news-worthiness. By the spring of 1998, the daily output of “Monica” speculation was legitimate news, devouring time and space that might have gone to covering other aspects of the presidency.
Finally, politics in the 1990s had become darker. It was, after all, only four years since the so-called Republican revolution, and Gingrich had risen to the top by utilizing aggressive personal attacks on the Democrats and their electoral base. He had engineered the removal of longtime Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright in 1989 over ethics violations, a feat that he and other Republicans regarded as a pay-back for Watergate. The new Republican majority in Congress also contained a number of ardent social and religious conservatives, convinced that Clinton and the Democrats were destroying the America of patriotism, piety, and “family values” that they cherished. Democrats responded with their own resentments. There was poison in the air.
And so the lines were drawn and passions prevailed. And each irreversible step contrived to shift a simple, distasteful sex scandal into a major constitutional confrontation.
Rush to Nowhere
Following his grand jury testimony on 17 August 1998, Clinton took to the airwaves to admit to the nation that he had engaged in a relationship with Monica Lewinsky that was “not appropriate,” that his testimony in January in a “politically inspired lawsuit” had been “legally accurate,” but that at no time had he asked anyone to “lie, to hide or destroy evidence, or to take any other unlawful action.” He deeply regretted his “personal failure.” But the matter, he argued, should be left between himself and “the two people I love most—my wife and our daughter—and our God.” He called for a halt to “the pursuit of personal destruction and the prying into private lives” and expressed a desire to continue the work of the nation.
The speech itself was a classic piece of Clinton triangulation that balanced apology, lawyer-like caution about damaging admissions, and outrage at Starr. Reactions among his intimates varied. Some betrayed members of the presidential staff (though none from the cabinet) resigned, though not immediately. The most important decision was Hillary Clinton’s—and she chose once more to be the supportive, wronged, wife. Democrats on Capitol Hill were angry and divided. Some favored asking Clinton to resign. Others were like Connecticut senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who took to the Senate floor to express his “disappointment and personal anger” at the president’s immoral conduct, but said that he would settle for a bipartisan resolution of censure as the correct chastisement.
September was another difficult month for the president. Starr sent two vanloads of documents to the thirty-seven-member House Judiciary Committee, along with a report summarizing the evidence that could be used as a basis for impeachment. Parts of the report were posted on the congressional Web site and immediately became public property. In order to support his contention that Clinton lied even in narrowly defined legal terms about never having “had sex” with Lewinsky, Starr had included her highly explicit testimony about who had touched what body parts, for how long, and with what results. In addition to the public embarrassment brought on by the intimate disclosures, Clinton saw the release and airing of his shifty grand jury testimony. All that was held back was a large accumulation of “raw” data, unverified claims of Clinton misdeeds, including alleged sexual harassment of no fewer than twenty-one women.
Dirt began to fly as the Judiciary Committee, a particularly partisan body, debated on the scope and length of its hearings. In September 1998 the Web site Salon.com unearthed the fact that Chairman Henry Hyde had once conducted an adulterous affair with the wife of a friend. Hyde brushed the matter aside as a “youthful indiscretion” (though he was over forty at the time of the affair) and insisted that smear tactics would not deter him from his nonpartisan and painful duty to investigate wrongdoing.
There was an October truce while Congress was in recess for midterm elections. On Election Day the voice of the people was heard. For a moment, after a rain of steady setbacks, things seemed to brighten for Clinton. The Democrats kept their forty-five senators and picked up enough House seats to whittle the Republican majority down to a mere handful. One immediate reaction was a Republican flight from Gingrich, whom the party held responsible for the electoral losses. House Republicans staged a revolt and named the more moderate Robert Livingston of Louisiana as Speaker-designate for the incoming 106th Congress, from which Gingrich would resign. Next, during a November hearing, Starr defended his report and stated that in all other areas of investigation—Whitewater, “Filegate,” and “Travelgate”—he had found nothing worthy of indictment. Meanwhile, attorneys for Paula Jones reached an agreement to give up their appeal to have the sexual harassment case reinstated—a serious possibility in light of the Starr report revelations—for a financial settlement of $700,000. That threat, at least, was now lifted.
But the momentum of the Judiciary Committee was now unstoppable. In the raucous and mesmerizing hearings, Democratic members charged that the committee was railroading the president on flimsy ground, far short of the “high crimes and misdemeanors” required by the Constitution for impeachment. Republicans countercharged that the case was not about sex, but about lies that denied a wronged citizen the justice that was her rightful due. Duty made it impossible for them to look away, even at the risk of political rejection by an electorate impatient to have the matter settled.
It was all good theater—and none of it swayed minds. On 11 December the committee voted to recommend four articles of impeachment to the full House. One accused the president of lying to Starr’s grand jury; another of lying in the Jones suit; a third of obstructing justice by concealing evidence related to the Jones case. A fourth catchall article extended the obstruction charge by citing the president’s failure to cooperate with Judiciary Committee’s investigation. All of the articles passed on straight party-line votes, 21-16, except for the second article, relating to civil perjury, which passed 20-17.
Now it was up to the entire House, and Republicans who might have settled for censure were being heavily pressured by party whip Tom DeLay to vote to impeach. As the representatives gathered for the crucial session in mid-December 1998 there came the announcement that President Clinton had authorized U.S. air strikes against Iraq for noncompliance with the UN arms inspections, which had been going on since the end of the Gulf War. Democratic Majority Leader Richard Gephardt urged a suspension of the impeachment proceedings until the operation was complete, on the grounds that it would be un-seemly not to have Congress united behind the commander in chief when American troops were risking death. The best he could achieve was one day’s grace, as Republicans suspected—with some possible justification—that the timing of the attacks was not accidental.
Then another bombshell exploded. Speaker-designate Livingston learned that the publisher of a pornographic magazine had run an investigation and exposed him as an adulterer. On 19 December, Livingston—the second critic of the president to be exposed as a fellow sexual sinner—addressed the president in absentia. “Sir,” he said, “you have done great damage to this nation…. I say that you have the power to terminate the damage and heal the wounds that you have created. You, sir, may resign your post.” Shouts of outrage broke out from the Democratic side; some members shouted at Livingston: “You resign!” To their astonishment, he did so. “I must set the example that I hope President Clinton will follow. I will not stand for Speaker of the House on January 6.” Livingston resigned his seat and left a shaken House whose members now seemed to be looking into a pit that might engulf them all—a series of exposures that would create what Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat from New York, called “a developing sexual McCarthyism.” Minority Leader Richard Gephardt put it clearly. “Fratricide dominates our public debate.” But the debate resumed, precisely on the old savage terms of Democratic accusations that the proceedings were a “constitutional assassination” and a “Republican coup d’etat,” and countercharges that nothing less was at stake than the future of freedom from arbitrary power.
One of the Judiciary Committee’s articles of impeachment was dropped, another defeated during the House vote. The first and third articles—on perjury before the grand jury and obstruction of justice in the Jones case—passed on almost straight party-line votes. Each article carried the fateful penultimate paragraph: “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.” Following the vote the Republicans caucused to name Illinois representative Dennis Hastert as their Speaker-designate for the next Congress. The 105th Congress then concluded its work. Clinton would go to trial.
Yet the Democrats, in the event, had “won by losing.” The initial Republican hope had been for the impeachment to carry a bipartisan imprimatur. But the Democrats had held firm and united in insisting that at most only censure was warranted. The strict party-line votes to impeach hung the label around the process of a partisan maneuver to oust Clinton. That meant that Senate Democrats would almost certainly hold together in voting to acquit, which meant that a two-thirds majority necessary to remove the president could not possibly be reached. It looked as if the Senate trial would be a show the final outcome of which was known from the first day. And so it proved. A small group of senators who neither wished to convict nor to let the president go scot-free hoped for a legitimate “finding of fact” on the charges, and censure, but their efforts failed. With respect to impeachment, the Constitution allowed only for an up or down vote.
The six-week trial was a balancing act among objectives. That of Tom Daschle, the minority leader in the Senate, was simply to hold his forty-five senators together against doubts and possible smoking guns hidden in Starr’s files. For Majority Leader Trent Lott, it was to satisfy the desire of Hyde’s House managers to present a powerful, if doomed, case. Both Daschle and Lott agreed in their desire to keep the Senate from being tied up for months in what easily could become a media circus. The procedures that they persuaded their colleagues to adopt allowed Hyde and the managers only three witnesses—Lewinsky, Jordan, and Clinton assistant Sidney Blumenthal—who would be seen on videotape, not on the Senate floor. The managers would be allowed several days to make their presentations and arguments, with equal time for rebuttal granted to the president’s legal team. And finally the senators would have time to pose questions and make their pro-voting statements. Chief Justice Rehnquist would preside, wearing a black robe he chose to adorn with three Gilbert-and-Sullivan-inspired gold stripes on each sleeve.
While the case moved toward resolution, Clinton demonstrated a political astuteness that maddened his enemies. He made only two public statements, reiterating his “profound remorse” for his “shameful conduct,” but vowing that he would reclaim the trust of the American people by carrying out the tasks they had chosen him to accomplish. He then withdrew from the fray and focused on appearing “presidential,” busy in the Oval Office and supposedly oblivious to the “partisans” howling and raging against him. In his State of the Union address on 19 January 1999, he was smiling and confident. He recapitulated all the good things that had happened in the United States in 1998 under his guidance, smiled at the Republican side of the chamber, welcomed the usual celebrity guests, and mouthed “I love you” to the First Lady, seated in the gallery. The speech was, in the words of a decidedly unfriendly watcher, the conservative commentator Pat Robertson, “a home run.”
On 12 February—Lincoln’s birthday—the Senate concluded the trial. On the first count, that of perjury, it found Clinton not guilty 55-45, with ten Republicans in the acquittal column. On the second count, obstruction of justice, it was a dead split, 50-50, five Democrats and five Republicans having joined “the opposition.” It was over. As Justice Rehnquist and a disappointed Henry Hyde and managers left the chamber, Tom Daschle and Trent Lott shook hands in the middle of the aisle, proud of having accomplished the objective of a relatively short and dignified proceeding they had established prior to the beginning of the trial. President Clinton spoke briefly after the verdict; when asked if he would “forgive and forget,” he answered: “I believe any person who asks for forgiveness has to be prepared to give it.” In the end, the public seemed to feel that impeachment itself was sufficient punishment.
In 2002 the historical and political legacy of Clinton’s impeachment was still uncertain. For defenders of executive power, the worst-case scenario was that future Congresses of an opposition party could hold an administration hostage to impeachment trials on trivial charges. Those favoring conviction feared that the acquittal had unacceptably lowered the bar for a president’s conduct—for what the chief executive might get away with without facing removal. The only historical precedents were Andrew Johnson’s trial, after which there was a period of rarely broken congressional supremacy that lasted thirty years, and Watergate, after which there was a period of congressional suzerainty lasting only six years, until the emergence of Ronald Reagan. The events of 11 September 2001 scrambled all predictions of the balance between Congress and the president following an impeachment crisis.
Even while the Lewinsky scandal consumed his domestic agenda, Clinton continued to perform in the field that traditionally was reserved for even an unpopular executive—foreign policy. His first-term record had been mixed. There was the failed intervention in Somalia, the indecisiveness characterizing U.S. policy with respect to Haiti, and the un-productive bombings of Iraq. But he had presided over the conversion of NATO from an anti-Soviet alliance into a general instrument for promoting Western and democratic interests, and even compelled Russia to accept its extension into Eastern Europe. (It may have been as a partial offset that he postponed the development of a U.S. missile defense system that Moscow found objectionable). And NATO became, in 1999, a key player in an important victory.
The scene was the Balkans, where a peace agreement signed in Dayton, Ohio, in 1995 still held, but where a new crisis erupted when Yugoslavia’s dictatorial leader, Slobodan Milosevic, launched a genocidal campaign of ethnic cleansing among Albanian separatists in the southern province of Kosovo. Faced with indisputable evidence of mass murders, the United States led the UN in protests, and then in March launched an aerial bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, including Belgrade, under NATO auspices. Within a few weeks, Milosevic was forced to pull back his troops and admit neutral monitors, and it all happened with virtually no loss of American lives. Though there was criticism of this kind of “humanitarian” military intervention, which killed a number of innocent Yugoslavs in target areas, Clinton defended it as something that should already have been international policy earlier. And as an aftermath, Milosevic was forced out of power by the Serbs in 2000, and then indicted as a war criminal by a special UN tribunal. If steps were being taken toward the establishment of international legal standards for intervention in states where human rights abuses were being perpetrated, Clinton deserves some of the credit.
In two other peacemaking efforts that had begun in the first term, the consequences of Clinton’s actions extended into the second term.
Ireland and Israel
Fighting between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland had gone on for years and cost hundreds of lives, mostly of innocents caught up in terror bombings and retaliations. Following through on a 1992 campaign promise to break the logjam in Ireland, Clinton first sent a delegation of conciliation-minded Irish-Americans to the scene, and then took the bold step of accepting a visit from Gerry Adams, the head of Sinn Fein (Gaelic for “we ourselves”), the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Since the British government regarded the IRA as a terrorist organization, it objected strongly to the legitimacy Clinton seemed to be conferring on Adams, especially as the IRA had yet to renounce “armed struggle” to “free” the British-ruled six northern counties known as Ulster. Clinton’s hope was that recognition and dialogue would allow Adams to persuade his followers that there was a peaceful road to the IRA’s goal. In 1994 the IRA declared a “complete cessation of military operations” for the first time in a quarter of a century. On St. Patrick’s Day 1995, Clinton again entertained Adams at the White House, this time in the company of John Hume, leader of the British Labour party. This was followed by other peace-building steps—the promotion of trade and investment measures to boost the stricken economy of Northern Ireland—and a presidential visit. In 1995, ignoring the displeasure of the British government, Clinton sent former senator George J. Mitchell to chair disarmament talks between the warring factions. By 1999 there was almost a complete lull in the violence, and the negotiators were hammering out final details of an agreement for joint control and eventual independence.
On taking office in 1993, Clinton faced a decision on U.S. policy in the Middle East. Except for Egypt, the Arab states continued to refuse to recognize Israel, and the Palestinians continued their resistance to Israel’s occupation and ongoing settlement of territories taken in the 1967 war. There was abundant bloodshed—again, mostly of innocent civilians—on both sides. With the cold war over, one rationale for continued support of Israel and for any U.S. intervention to stabilize the region had disappeared, and the administration of George H. W. Bush had given signs of losing interest in the matter. Clinton abandoned that posture, and gave behind-the-scenes encouragement to negotiations taking place in Oslo, Norway, between representatives of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). These culminated in a historic agreement under which the PLO agreed to recognize Israel’s right to exist and Israel in turn recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Clinton, though he had played no broker’s role, arranged to have the September 1993 signing ceremony take place on the White House lawn, where he stood with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as they exchanged historic handshakes for the cameras. In 1994, those two, joined by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, would be jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But the devil was in the details, and the Oslo agreements were simply a set of promises by both sides to move in a peaceful direction, but without clear road maps. Still, there was an immediate positive spin-off from the eased tensions—the signing of a peace agreement between Jordan and Israel in 1994, embodied in a “Washington Declaration” signed by Jordan’s King Hussein and Rabin at the White House. A formal treaty-signing in Jordan later in the year was attended by Clinton.
Clinton continued to be warmly regarded in Israel, even though his efforts could not produce permanent peace. In the autumn of 1995 when Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish fanatic, Clinton attended the funeral. Wearing the traditional kippah, or skullcap, he stood graveside and pronounced aloud the Hebrew words “Shalom, chaver” (“goodbye, friend”) in what appeared to be a genuine moment of emotion. Rabin’s murder threw the situation into a newly critical phase, as the hard-line right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu succeeded to power after new elections. There were more arguments, more accusations of bad faith and fighting. As late as 1998, in the midst of impeachment, Clinton remained involved. He sponsored a new round of talks in western Maryland, spent almost a week in conference with Netanyahu and Arafat, and managed to cobble together an interim agreement, as laid out in the Wye River Memorandum, that put the peace process back on track.
In overall evaluation, Clinton deserves reasonably good marks for leadership in the post-cold war world that he inherited, where the role of the United States was uncertain. Neither a unilateralist like his successor, nor yet a peace-minded internationalist like Jimmy Carter prior to 1979, he was the guardian of an interim arrangement—an era when established international rules were changing, and defining America’s interests was a genuine challenge.
However, following the events of 11 September 2001, Clinton found himself attempting to defend his administration against those who charged that his administrations did little to combat the threat of terrorism, citing inadequate responses to the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000.
An Ambiguous Legacy
In the domestic arena, Clinton’s presidency ended, for all practical purposes, in the spring of 1999. He was not merely a lame duck, but a scarred one, with little congressional confidence behind him. His popularity remained high, as evidenced by the 1998 congressional elections. Perhaps voters were charmed by personality above all, or perhaps they no longer had any sense of structural interaction and interdependence —voting for their congressional representatives and the president as individuals, without regard to their possible cooperation or lack of it in creating legislation.
In any case, the two sessions of the 106th Congress were fairly devoid of legislative accomplishment. The good times rolled on to produce a $184 billion surplus, of which the president boasted in his final State of the Union address, in January 2000. He asked for a limited middle-class tax cut, more money for schoolrooms and teacher salaries, for prescription drug assistance to seniors on Medicare, stricter handgun control, and “fast track” trade-negotiating authority. He got none of them. But Congress did pass limited campaign finance reform, authorize normalization of trade with China, and reformed Depression-era banking laws to allow for new developments in the financial services industry.
During most of 2000 Clinton stayed behind the scenes, doing what he could for Al Gore’s candidacy. For the most part, this consisted of letting Gore stand on his own feet, clear of the taint of Clinton’s “immorality.”
Clinton hoped the 2000 election would be something of a vindication. As it turned out, Al Gore won the popular vote, but not the electoral vote, and George W. Bush became the next president. The 107th Congress was not significantly different from the one preceding it; the Republicans barely kept control of the House and the Senate remained split evenly. A personal victory for the Clintons, however, was Hillary Clinton’s election to the Senate from New York, where they would make their post-White House home.
President Clinton’s final months in office were a mixture of wins and losses. In October 1999 Kenneth Starr stepped down as Whitewater special prosecutor and was succeeded by Robert Ray. Clinton had outlasted his nemesis in office. Ray did not pursue a perjury indictment to follow Clinton’s departure from the White House, but Clinton in exchange admitted to having made a false statement in the now-settled Jones suit. He paid a fine of $25,000, and had his license to practice law in Arkansas suspended for five years. The U. S. Supreme Court also disbarred him, meaning that Clinton would not be allowed to practice before it. In all, the Jones suit set him back millions in legal fees.
The taint of improper fund-raising lingered, and in his last two weeks in office, a final eruption further sullied Clinton’s reputation. On 11 January 2001, James Riady, an Indonesian businessman, pleaded guilty to funneling money through various devices to U.S. political parties, mainly Democratic. And on the morning of 20 January, Clinton listed the customary pardons issued by an outgoing president. They included commutation of the sentences of four Hasidic Jews convicted of embezzlement in New York State, who happened to have been active in lobbying the members of their community to support Hillary Clinton’s Senate bid. And above all, a man little known to the public, named Marc Rich. Rich was a commodities trader who had fled to Switzerland in 1983 to escape prosecution for conspiracy, racketeering, and illegal trading with Iran, plus some $48 million in unpaid taxes. His ex-wife Denise, however, was a significant contributor to the Democratic party, operatives of which had marshaled an impressive array of friends including Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, to call the White House and press for a pardon for Marc Rich. In the subsequent fallout and flurry of investigations, it also turned out that the First Lady’s brother, Hugh Rodham, had received some $400,000 for lobbying on behalf of two convicted felons who received last-minute pardons.
Clinton responded to the outcry with various disclaimers and legalisms. His associates were quick to point out that George H. W. Bush’s last-minute pardons in 1992 and 1993 included convicted or about-to-be-tried figures of the Iran-contra affair. Yet the Clintons still made their exit on a distinctly sour note. Accusations hounded them: one, that they had removed gifts that properly belonged to the White House; another, that Clinton’s choice of an expensive mid-Manhattan penthouse as his taxpayer-paid ex-presidential office was exceptionally greedy. The departing First Couple again claimed that as always they were the victims of petty harassments. But they returned some thousands of dollars worth of gifts, and the solution to the penthouse office was vintage Clinton. He abandoned the suite in Carnegie Towers for a cheaper one in Harlem, New York’s historic black heartland.
What evaluation of Clinton will history render? Will his name invoke the memory of scandal amid prosperity, like that of Harding? Or of riding a business boom that he did not create, like Coolidge? Will political history textbooks record him as the president who led the Democratic party to a new foundation on the essentially midroad sentiments of most Americans? Or as the president who cut the party loose from its moorings in the working class and its emphasis on community responsibility for the general welfare and restraint of private greed? Will he, as he of course wishes, be seen as the chief figure in the era of transition, leading the American people to a new world and a new century? The last seems unlikely given the impeachment. But even if the impeachment were forgotten, and a century hence American textbooks talked about a second Era of Good Feelings, who really remembers James Monroe, the president who presided over the first? Was Clinton a leader, a scoundrel, a figurehead, or a victim? The jury is still out.