The View From Congress
The confession leaves some lawmakers stunned, others demanding resignation. Can Clinton calm angry Democrats?
By James Carney
(TIME, August 31) -- As Jim Moran sat at home with his wife on Monday night, he wondered what to do about two of their children, ages seven and nine. Bill Clinton was moments away from delivering a televised address to the nation, and Moran, a Democratic Congressman from Virginia, "didn't want to say to the kids, 'You have to leave the room--the President's coming on.'"
The kids, as it turns out, may have been less troubled than their dad by what they saw. "This whole sordid mess is just too tawdry and tedious and embarrassing," said Moran on the morning after, his voice a subdued monotone. "It's like a novel that just became too full of juicy parts and bizarre, sleazy characters." Characters like Bill Clinton, the leader of Moran's party, the President he had followed loyally for six years? "I guess part of this is finding out that everyone is far more human than we'd like to believe," conceded the Congressman. "I guess there are no real heroes."
If Moran's reaction was disturbing, what Clinton heard from some other Democrats in Congress was even worse. Dianne Feinstein, the highly regarded Senator from California, recalled how she believed Clinton back in January when he denied having had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. With the President's change of story, she said, "my trust in his credibility has been badly shattered." Paul McHale, a retiring third-term Democratic Congressman from Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley, went even further. Declaring that the President "lied under oath" and "almost certainly" encouraged Lewinsky to keep silent, McHale bluntly called on Clinton to "resign or face impeachment."
It's one thing for Republicans to call for Clinton's resignation. (Some, like conservative presidential aspirant Senator John Ashcroft, did so quickly, and predictably.) But congressional Democrats form the President's outermost--and most important--ring of defense against his enemies. Which is why Clinton got on the phone to offer personal explanations and apologies to more than a dozen Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday. For the most part, those Democrats who said anything at all in public stuck to White House-inspired spin, expressing "disappointment" in the President, but satisfaction that he had taken responsibility for his actions, and a strong desire to see Starr's investigation come to an end. In private, however, Democrats were saying that the President's hold on his party has never been so fragile. "We stood by this guy for seven months while he lied to us," complained one bitter House Democrat. "Now we're supposed to happily keep defending him? I don't think so."
Neither did the party's congressional leaders, most of whom were conspicuous in their absence from the airwaves in the aftermath of Clinton's speech. (In a stroke of luck for the President, Congress is on summer recess, its members dispersed across the country and the world.) House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt, celebrating his 32nd anniversary with his wife in France, declined CNN's offer to dispatch a satellite truck so he could appear on Larry King Live. His Senate counterpart, Tom Daschle, was spending the week cruising around his home state of South Dakota, alone and, as one aide emphasized, "out of cell-phone range." Cornered at an event in Sioux Falls on Tuesday, Daschle admitted he was "disappointed in not being told the truth" when the President denied the affair. But, he said, "it's time we get on with it."
Which is about what Newt Gingrich said too. While some Republicans took the opportunity to bash the President, Gingrich maintained the uncharacteristic reserve he's been exercising in recent weeks. "It's premature for anyone to make any judgment," the House Speaker lectured reporters from his district in Georgia. "I think that everyone would be best served if they waited for Judge Starr's report and found out what all the facts were." Senate Republican leader Trent Lott purposely avoided the cameras, instead issuing a written statement from his home in Pascagoula, Miss. He blamed the President for causing pain to his family and "the American people," but called on the independent counsel to wrap up his investigation "without delay."
Other Republicans were less circumspect. Having publicly promised Clinton that a confession would probably save him from impeachment hearings, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch responded to the speech with outrage at the President's attack on the independent counsel. G.O.P. Congressman Bob Barr, a committed Clinton opponent who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, mocked the President's act of contrition. "It was all a charade," Barr insisted. "The lip biting and the hangdog look were all part of an act." A better barometer was Illinois' Henry Hyde, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, where impeachments originate. Hyde said that until Starr turns over a report to Congress, "we simply should not speculate about how the House would proceed." Implied in his words is the expectation that Starr will eventually issue a report, which by definition would include evidence of possibly impeachable crimes.
Hyde's statement of the obvious was a reality check to all but those White House aides and naively optimistic Democrats who wanted to believe that Clinton's speech could make the whole Lewinsky scandal disappear. Barney Frank, a leading Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, was one who scoffed at the idea that Clinton had admitted to anything that could merit more than severe political embarrassment. "If Bill Clinton were a candidate for re-election," Frank noted, "this would be a real problem for him. Thanks to the 22nd Amendment, he's not."
But he is still President, with two years remaining before his second term ends. Even if there are no impeachment hearings and he survives the next few months, Clinton may never succeed in restoring the credibility he needs with Congress to be able to lead effectively. The most he might hope for is to be viewed from Capitol Hill with disdain by his enemies and pity by his friends. Which is why, even to sympathetic Democrats like Jim Moran, Clinton's plight seems so unbearable. "After dedicating his life to public service, to have his career defined by a sleazy incident like this is more than ironic," Moran says. "It's tragic."
--With reporting by John F. Dickerson and Mark Thompson/Washington