How impeachment became inevitable

How impeachment became inevitable

Late at night on Nov. 3, 1998, President Clinton hovered over the shoulder of his chief of staff, John Podesta, who was receiving minute-by-minute election returns on his personal computer. For Clinton, these were results to be savored. Down went North Carolina Sen. Lauch Faircloth, the Republican blamed at the White House for the appointment of special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr. Also a loser was Alfonse M. D'Amato, the New York Republican who'd chaired the Senate Whitewater hearings.

Meanwhile, the Democrats were picking up five seats in the House and holding their own in the Senate. Exit polls showed little support for impeaching a President over lies relating to private sexual conduct.

Just six weeks later, on Saturday, Dec. 19, a chastened Bill Clinton was secluded in the Oval Office, praying under the guidance of minister Tony Campolo, while the House of Representatives passed the first of two articles of impeachment against him. Clinton then huddled with Podesta and other top aides, watching as the House approved one more of the four proposed articles of impeachment, while voting down two others. His aides described Clinton as disappointed, but determined to find a way to stay in office. "It's a sober moment and he reflects it," Podesta said.

To buck him up, two bus loads of Democratic House members rushed to the White House to pledge their support. In a private East Room ceremony and again in a public pep rally on the South Lawn that was strangely upbeat, a calmly defiant Clinton vowed to stay in office "until the last hour of the last day of my term." Reiterating a line he has used in the past, Clinton called for an end to "the politics of personal destruction," and said he hoped that the Senate could devise a bipartisan resolution that disposes of the articles of impeachment in a "proportional and reasonable manner." He was joined by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who stood beside him, holding his hand and smiling. Mrs. Clinton had gone to Capitol Hill early in the morning to thank the Democrats herself and to tell them: "I love and care deeply about my husband."

Regardless of how this drama plays out-and few seem to believe Bill Clinton will actually be removed from office-his presidency will never be the same. If it were written now, the legacy of the Clinton era would include six years of economic prosperity, falling national crime rates, and lower levels of poverty. But what Clinton once promised would be the most ethical Administration in history will also be remembered for a string of investigations of the President and his party, culminating in a sordid sex scandal brought on by Clinton's lack of judgment, his hubris, and his unwillingness to tell the truth even after he was caught.

The result is not just impeachment. And not just lost time on pressing national concerns such as Social Security reform. It is also a profoundly polarized national political climate, evidenced for all to see in the two-day House debate on impeachment that evidently changed not one mind out of 435 and took place in an atmosphere made surreal by the pictures of American bombs raining down on Baghdad and by the casualty of yet another prominent politician over marital infidelity-this one, incoming House Speaker Bob Livingston, R-La. His sudden resignation announcement on Saturday morning-it came as he called on Clinton to step down-stunned Democrats, and raised the stakes once again for the White House.

Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., came to the well of the House to pronounce Livingston a "worthy, good and honorable man," while asking Republicans to remember while they considered the President's fate that America's leaders are "men, not angels."

"The events of the last days sadden me," Gephardt had said at the beginning of the debate. "We are now at the height of a cycle of the politics of negative attacks, character assassination, personal smears of good people, decent people, worthy people. It's no wonder to me and to you that the people of our country today are cynical and indifferent and apathetic about our government, and about our country. The politics of smear and slash-and-burn must end."

In the two days of debate, however, Democrat after Democrat attacked the Republicans in the language of smear, slash, and burn. Rep. Tom Lantos of California compared the GOP refusal to allow a vote on censure to something that would happen in "Hitler's parliament... or Stalin's parliament." Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., spoke of a Republican "coup d'etat," while Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., said racism was a motivating factor in the impeachment. Invoking the air strikes in Iraq, Rep. Martin Frost of Texas intoned that the Republicans could wind up with "blood on their hands."

And so it went.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., observed dejectedly that when the air strikes against Iraq were announced, members of Congress attacked one another-even when they agreed on the policy. "I'm not smart enough to know how we got to this place," said the man who presided over the confirmation hearings of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas. "But it ain't a good place."

Saturday's action sets up a possible trial in the U.S. Senate, the first since that of President Andrew Johnson in 1868. Even before the House vote, respected Republican voices-including former President Gerald R. Ford and former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole-were advocating a negotiated settlement that would entail Clinton's censure, but keep him in office. But Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi seemed to rule that out two days before the House vote, saying: "We will go to a trial. And there won't be any deal making as we begin our job."

Clinton loyalists, having learned their lesson the hard way, are nervous about what might take place in the Senate, even though a glance at the makeup of the Senate makes it seem highly unlikely that 67 Senators would vote to convict. "They know that once a trial starts, anything can happen," said former Clinton aide George R. Stephanopoulos.

Even before Saturday's vote, the prospect of such a trial was engendering calls for Clinton to resign. Vice President Al Gore flatly rejected that possibility, saying it was as remote as a meteor shower hitting Washington. But earlier, when they were still lobbying for support to defeat impeachment, Clinton's own lawyers warned of the dire consequences that would result. "It would disrupt the government of the United States in such a fashion as to gridlock the government, divide the country, and actually defy the will of the people," said White House special counsel Gregory B. Craig.

How the Republic was brought to this historic constitutional confrontation is the story of a partisan, polarized Congress and a President cornered by his own indifference to truth-telling. Clinton's inability to reach out beyond the Democratic minority in Congress-and his penchant for routinely alienating Republicans whenever he opened his mouth-made censure less likely and impeachment more so. In fact, in the days since Nov. 3, House Republicans have pursued a course in which they essentially presented impeachment as censure. To constitutional scholars, the GOP tactic was an alarming misuse of the impeachment power, one that would set the worst kind of precedent.

The response of the House Republicans, without using these exact words, is that Bill Clinton is a bad precedent, too.

"I simply have not found the means to rationalize away the fact that our President lied under oath; that he has tried repeatedly to game the judicial system," said one of the fence-sitting Republican moderates, Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert of New York, when he announced his support of impeachment. "I regularly visit high schools in my district, and I keep asking myself, 'How am I to answer the high school student who asks me why he was expelled for cheating, or the average citizen who is punished for lying in a court proceeding?' "

As other moderate Republicans came to the same judgment as Boehlert, the White House response was not to engage their points at all. Rather, it accused GOP leaders of orchestrating a partisan juggernaut. Privately, White House officials blamed House Republican Whip Tom D. DeLay of Texas, and they took pains to work his nickname, "The Hammer," into their talking points.

Clinton's defenders lacked specifics-and the moderates who broke for impeachment said they'd not been pressured at all -- but there is little doubt that the upheaval in the ranks of the Republican leadership helped shape the dynamics of impeachment. And the (temporary) makeup of that leadership, ironically, was determined by the very election returns that the Democrats believed had saved Bill Clinton.

"This Thing Is Dead"

The day after the election, the President was described by top advisers as feeling "euphoric" and "vindicated" over the Democratic pickups-and the prospect that impeachment had seemingly lost momentum. To be sure, he still had work to do, personally as well as professionally. One telling detail that leaked out of the White House was that the first lady, who'd been the Democrats' best weapon during the midterm campaigns, was ensconced in the White House movie theater while her husband monitored the returns from the West Wing. Also, the President had to face the likelihood of some sort of congressional censure. But all in all, Clinton and the leaders of his party, as well as most of official Washington, swiftly concluded that by the most democratic means possible-going to the polls-the American people had effectively stifled the third threat of impeachment in the history of the United States.

"The American people sent us a message that would break your eardrums if anyone was listening," the President said. "The important thing is, we have to get back to doing the people's business."

Others were more direct.

"This thing is dead," Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., predicted. "Now they have to fight over who will bury it." Nor was this sentiment confined to Democrats.

"After the election, it's pretty clear there isn't going to be an impeachment," said former Republican Rep. Bill Frenzel, now a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. "I can count," added Rep. Charles T. Canady, R-Fla., a member of the Judiciary Committee. "I think the election is going to make many Republican members, and Democratic members who might have considered impeachment, much more reluctant to do so." Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif., another member of Judiciary, was even blunter. "People are definitely tired with the impeachment," she said. "They want to put it behind them."

Republicans were mainly tired of House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, as it turned out. They tossed him overboard four days after the election. The authority for impeachment fell to Judiciary Committee chairman Henry J. Hyde of Illinois-and to DeLay.

In time-in six weeks time, to be exact-it would become evident that the early euphoria in the White House was misguided. That miscalculation, and the subsequent support for impeachment, rested on a number of factors: the lack of a Republican foil without Gingrich to kick around; Hyde's steely determination to see the thing through, even when it became clear he could count on support from none of the 16 Democrats on his committee; the legacy of ill will Clinton had built up among Republicans, many of whom seem to despise the President; Clinton's own knack for digging himself in deeper with Republicans with his statements on the scandal; the Democrats' misplaced confidence that Starr would perform poorly before the committee; and, finally, a misreading-perhaps over-reading is a better word-of what all those anti-impeachment public opinion polls meant.

Where's Newt?

Of the many plot twists since the Nov. 3 election, one of the most unexpected is how Gingrich's resignation helped undermine the Democrats' strategy for fighting impeachment. This happened in two ways.

First, long before the impeachment inquiry, Gingrich had solidified his place alongside such men as Herbert Hoover, Joseph McCarthy, and Richard Nixon in the pantheon of Republicans whom Democrats love to revile. When he disappeared, Democrats were hard-pressed to shift the conversation from Clinton's behavior.

Gingrich's absence also left a vacuum of a more tangible nature. Since mid-November, Gingrich has been virtually inaccessible on Capitol Hill. Even though he remains Speaker until Jan. 3, he pointedly did not attend Republican leadership meetings to plan impeachment strategy. The Republicans coalesced quickly around Livingston, who made it clear that his priority as Speaker would be a return to legislative normalcy in the House. Livingston made a calculated decision to defer to Hyde, and to focus on his own leadership transition. This left Republicans who are outside Hyde's purview of the Judiciary Committee without direction, and DeLay quietly moved into that void to rally Republicans behind impeachment. DeLay is a fierce Clinton-basher, but he is not sufficiently well known to the general public for Democrats to make him into an instant demon. DeLay also proved more streetwise than Gingrich. His demeanor and rhetoric during television appearances were dignified, and he took pains to avoid ruffling feathers among undecided moderate Republicans who have sometimes chaffed under The Hammer's high-pressure tactics in the four years since Republicans won the majority.

"When you really assess the Republican leadership elections, the one person who probably had the greatest influence on who was elected and who was not was Tom DeLay," said Rep. Calvin Dooley, D-Calif. "And Tom is clearly one of the most ardent critics of President Clinton. I think that he was the force that developed the strategy of not allowing a censure [vote] to come to the floor and not giving any of his moderate Republican colleagues an alternative to impeachment."

Democrats complained about this bitterly, but the complaints lacked focus, not only because DeLay was an unknown but also because the Democrats never fashioned a bipartisan censure resolution to offer in place of impeachment. The long and short of it? "With Gingrich off the stage," said John P. Feehery, the former press secretary to DeLay, "Democrats [couldn't] find a villain."

"Does It Ever Stop?"

Ken Starr was supposed to be the villain-but he refused to play the role. After Starr sent his pedantic and overly graphic report to the House, Democrats figured that the notoriously tin-earned special prosecutor would self-destruct before the committee. But this is not what happened. Testifying on Nov. 17, Starr painstakingly went through the evidence against Clinton in a two-hour presentation-and then kept his cool during some eight hours of hectoring by the committee Democrats and the President's lawyer, all of whom focused on the way Starr conducted his investigation, not on anything the President might have done.

In one sense, that was the day that Starr passed the torch to the House Republicans. If there were going to be articles of impeachment, they would be fashioned by the Judiciary Republicans. In the process of doing just that, the Republicans helped shift the national conversation away from Linda Tripp's perfidy and Ken Starr's excesses and onto other issues, namely these: Did Bill Clinton conspire to thwart Paula Corbin Jones' right to redress through the courts? Did he lie to a federal grand jury investigating that case? And if he did, are these impeachable offenses?

In time, Hyde would forcefully answer yes to all three of those questions. But back in the first week of November, he too, revealed doubts about how aggressively the impeachment inquiry could be pursued, given the Democratic gains on Nov. 3. In a speech in his hometown of Chicago, Hyde conceded that the election returns might have stolen the "momentum" for impeachment. Hyde also sent to the White House a list of 81 questions for the President, asking him to answer them as a way of expediting the inquiry.

From the outset of the inquiry-actually, at the outset of the Paula Jones sexual harassment case-Clinton, his aides, and his lawyers have displayed an uncanny ability to spur on their opponents every time they speak or file a legal submission. It was a slur by an unnamed White House official on CNN that convinced Jones to file the lawsuit in the first place; it was a crack by Clinton attorney Robert Bennett about Linda Tripp's credibility that prompted her to secretly tape White House intern Monica Lewinsky; it was Clinton's assertion when he testified to the grand jury on Aug. 17 that he had not lied in the Jones case -- even while he changed his story-that convinced the special prosecutor to seek articles of impeachment. And it was Clinton's apology in the Rose Garden eight days before the vote-he spoke as though the crime he was accused of was adultery, not perjury-that helped kill what little support he had among moderate Republicans.

The 81 questions that Hyde sent to Clinton on Nov. 5 produced more of the same. The White House didn't return them to the committee until Nov. 27, and the answers ended up forming the basis of one of the articles of impeachment. Among other things, Clinton and his legal team stubbornly clung to their convoluted explanation that Clinton hadn't lied when he denied having sex with Lewinsky, because of confusion over the definitions of "sexual relations" during his January deposition. They also glossed over the President's more transparent evasions-he couldn't recall ever being alone with Lewinsky, she gave him "one or two" gifts instead of four dozen, and so forth-by reconstituting or reinterpreting the questions the president was asked under oath.

"His answers," the committee said in its report, "are a continuation of a pattern of deceit and obstruction of duly authorized investigations."

In his summation of the case, Judiciary Committee Counsel David Schippers also pointed to misrepresentations in the White House submission in defense of Clinton. "Does it ever stop?" he shouted in exasperation.

This, in a nutshell, was one of Clinton's biggest obstacles to finding enough allies to stave off impeachment. Beginning with the budget battles of 1993, only months after he assumed office, Clinton cemented his reputation as a man who fudged the truth on all kinds of issues-not just private sex acts-and had a habit of shifting positions and reneging on promises. Often, those most embittered were Democrats. It was Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, who observed in 1995: "I think most of us learned some time ago that if you don't like the President's position on a particular issue, you simply need to wait a few weeks."

At the White House, spokesman Joe Lockhart criticized Republicans who were coming out for impeachment for being petty. "It has potentially serious consequences as we move forward, when a party of the majority can take steps to remove a President... because they're mad at him, or they don't like him, or they don't like the way he comports himself, or they don't like the way he speaks," Lockhart told reporters.

To Republicans, the question wasn't whether members liked the President, whom most still find personable. It was whether they believed him. Indeed, the Democrats who rose in opposition to impeachment rarely discussed Clinton's behavior at all-and they never once defended it.

"The President's actions... were repugnant, embarrassing, and immoral," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., in typical remarks. But, she and Democrat after Democrat insisted, they were not impeachable. Late in the day Friday, a few Democrats did contest some aspects of the factual case against Clinton. But, overwhelmingly, most were content to focus on process: to criticize the Republican leadership for scheduling the vote during the bombing of Iraq; for not allowing a vote on censure as an alternative; for holding Clinton to a higher standard than Gingrich (who was censured, not expelled after admitting to making misleading statements of his own); for interpreting the Constitution to mean that lies in a private lawsuit constitute the "high crimes and misdemeanors" for which a President can be impeached; and for ignoring the will of the American people reflected in public opinion polls.

"To my colleagues across the aisle, I say, let go of your obsession," pleaded Rep. David E. Bonior of Michigan, the Democrats' second-ranking leader. "Listen to the American people."

Misplaced Faith

The polls were cited effectively by the White House throughout 1998, but by mid-December, the tactic had worn thin. For one thing, the polls argument-and the related contention that Republicans who voted for impeachment would pay dearly in 2000-might have been too simplistic all along. Some 65 percent of Americans polled have consistently been against impeachment, but in solidly Republican districts, this figure has always been much lower-and among Republican voters, it is a minority position. Two other points about the polls: On Friday, Dec. 11, Gallup Organization Inc. conducted a poll showing three interesting things. First, those opposed to impeachment declined from 66 percent to 59 percent. Second, when asked if they would be angry if the House impeached, a majority said they would not. And, finally, most Americans were only starting to pay close attention to the scandal in recent days, suggesting that as voters tuned into the issue, they saw it in less stark colors.

Finally, Republicans from swing districts said privately that although they feared a backlash if they voted to impeach a President who'd carried their district twice, they also feared a backlash in their own party (in the form of a conservative primary challenge) if they did not.

Thus, as one moderate Republican quipped to an old friend, if they are going to pay a price either way, they might as well vote their consciences.

This was one last strike against the President. In the days leading up to Saturday's fateful vote, moderate after GOP moderate faced the cameras to say that he'd come to the same conclusion. For William Jefferson Clinton, the most ominous moment may have been when California Republican Rep. Tom Campbell came out against him. Campbell is smart and perhaps the most maverick of Republicans: a pro-choice, pro-environment former Stanford University law professor so independent that he voted against Gingrich for House Speaker.

"On Aug. 17, it is my belief that the president did not tell the truth on several occasions before the federal criminal grand jury, having had seven months' advance notice, with his attorney by his side, being able to stop the questioning at any point because he was no longer under subpoena," Campbell said. "Accordingly, I conclude that the President, intentionally, on more than one occasion, did not tell the truth in a federal criminal grand jury. That is very serious. That is impeachable, and I will vote to impeach the President of the United States."

Correspondents Eliza Newlin Carney, Richard E. Cohen, Margaret Kriz, Alexis Simendinger, and Kirk Victor contributed to this story.