1998: Sorry, but we're not sorry to see you go
All in all, it was an ugly, scandal-plagued year
By the AllPolitics Staff
WASHINGTON (December 31) -- What a rotten year it's been.
In 1997, our year-end review bemoaned the fact that not much happened. We called it "a year of drip-drip-drip developments."
As punishment, the news gods spoke in January 1998 and said, "Let there be Monica." The roller-coaster ride began -- denials, leaks, stains, secret tapes, duplicitous friends, a stinking, wallowing sinkhole of a story.
Who knew it would all lead, 11 months later, to an impeachment vote in the House and now, a pending trial of President Bill Clinton in the Senate on perjury and obstruction of justice charges?
So, before we plunge into 1999, with senators wrangling over how to punish Clinton, the inevitable pre-2000 jockeying by all the folks who want to be the next president and maybe some actual legislating on Social Security reform, let's look back at 1998, in the same way people slow down and stare at a car wreck on the Beltway:
Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky: Where to start? It began with a sketchy report on the Drudge Report Web site January 19 about a spiked Newsweek story. But it hit the mainstream on January 21, with reports in The Washington Post and elsewhere that Independent Counsel Ken Starr had won permission to expand his inquiry into whether Clinton had had an affair with Lewinsky, then urged her to lie about it under oath in the Paula Jones case.
From there, the Clinton-Lewinsky sex-and-perjury scandal slimed its way through three distinct phases during the year.
First, there were Clinton's denials -- "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky" -- and a parade of witnesses appearing before Starr's federal grand jury, followed by the inevitable torrent of leaks about what they said. Among the details that appeared in sourced reports: Phone sex, oral sex, a semen-stained dress.
There were legal battles, too, over executive privilege, attorney-client privilege and a so-called "protective function privilege" for Secret Service officers called to testify.
Then came August 17 and Clinton's grand jury testimony, followed by a terse, four-minute speech to the nation in which he admitted to a "wrong" relationship with Lewinsky. But Clinton denied wrongdoing and said it was time to move on. Politically, the speech was a failure -- too little contrition, his critics said.
Starr wrapped up the Lewinsky part of his probe, sending a report to Congress September 9, accompanied by 18 boxes of supporting materials. Lawmakers posted most of it on the Internet, and its salacious details about Clinton and Lewinsky's White House encounters shocked some Americans and became fodder for countless jokes about cigars for others.
The full House responded by approving an impeachment inquiry, and Starr was the key witness.
In the ultra-partisan, Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee, there was little doubt the panel would vote to impeach Clinton and on December 11-12, it did, approving four articles of impeachment: perjury before the grand jury and in the Jones case, obstruction of justice and abuse of power. A Democratic attempt to censure Clinton instead went down to defeat.
In final congressional action in 1998, the full House approved two articles of impeachment on December 19, alleging that Clinton committed perjury before the grand jury and obstructed justice. That set the stage for the next phase, a Senate trial, and propelled one of the most unseemly presidential scandals ever into 1999.
After nearly a year of constant news coverage, though, one question remained, and probably will until President Clinton writes his memoirs. What prompted such reckless behavior?
Special report: Investigating the President
Election '98 and the fall of Newt: It was supposed to be a Republican year. Pundits and GOP leaders alike forecasted strong election gains in both the House and Senate, as well as the important governor's mansions. Instead, Democrats defied history, gaining House seats in a midterm election while fending off losses in the Senate and gubernatorial races. And former pro wrestler Jesse Ventura beat both the established parties' candidates to win Minnesota's statehouse as a Reform Party candidate.
Everyone had a theory on what went wrong for the Grand Old Party: A leadership failure? Too much reliance on a Lewinsky factor that never materialized, coupled with too few concrete accomplishments in the Republican-led Congress? Whatever the cause, the effect was a final blow that proved too much for Newt Gingrich. The controversial speaker stepped aside four days later to give his party a fresh start under Rep. Bob Livingston (R-Louisiana) who, in a perfect comment on the unpredictable year, would himself fall victim to Washington's new sexual McCarthyism.
Special report: Election '98
The two ends to Jones v. Clinton: The much-anticipated public spectacle of an embarassing trial to air Paula Jones' sexual harassment suit against Bill Clinton was not to be, as Judge Susan Webber Wright summarily dismissed the case in a stunning April 1 decision.
But the decision came too late to avoid the more severe damage Jones wreaked on the Clinton presidency: Earlier in the year her lawyers had already set Starr's investigation in motion by questioning Lewinsky and the president about their relationship. [See above] With those allegations of perjury and obstruction of justice threatening his job, and a Jones appeal filed, the president was finally motivated to settle. After four years, the two sides agreed on November 13 to an $850,000 settlement with -- in a hollow victory for Clinton -- no apology.
Special report: Jones v. Clinton
Godspeed, John Glenn: In a year with few political heroes, Sen. John Glenn, 76, broke the trend, roaring back into space on October 29. The world's oldest astronaut first orbited the earth in 1962. That flight later launched his political career, and Glenn spent four terms representing his home state of Ohio in the U.S. Senate. He retired this year.
Special report: John Glenn rides again
Historic budget surplus: For the first time since 1969, the United States posted a federal budget surplus. Clinton announced the estimated $70 billion surplus on September 30 and both the White House and Republican Congress swiftly took credit for the historic achievement. Both sides were equally quick to propose ways to spend the money. The president insisted any surplus be reserved to save Social Security, while several Republican tax-cut plans emerged. In a safe prediction whenever extra dollars are floating around Washington, look for this battle to heat up in 1999.
The Capitol Hill shootings: On summer days, hundreds of visitors line up to tour the U.S. Capitol. Late in the afternoon of Friday, July 24, a disturbed man with a gun disrupted the routine. When he was finished, two Capitol Hill police officers, Jacob Chestnut and John Gibson, lay dying, and the suspect, Russell Weston Jr., was wounded. Weston faces a February 22 hearing to determine if he is mentally competent to stand trial.
Campaign finance investigation: Attorney General Janet Reno continued to resist Republican calls to appoint an independent counsel to probe the Clinton-Gore re-election campaign's fund-raising, as a Justice Department task force built cases against individual fund-raisers.
In a flurry of activity in late November and early December, Reno said no to an independent counsel to look at Vice President Al Gore and his disputed fund-raising calls and no to an independent counsel for President Clinton and the Democrats' so-called "issue ads". Reno asked for more time to decide on the case of Harold Ickes, the former White House deputy chief of staff.
Mike Espy's acquittal: A jury cleared former Agriculture secretary Mike Espy of all charges against him on December 2, dealing a serious blow to Independent Counsel Donald Smaltz and his four-year, $17 million investigation. Espy had been charged with accepting about $33,000 in sports tickets, meals and travel from Tyson Foods Inc. and other companies he had regulated in his government job. "It's been tough, but I knew from day one that I would stand here today before you completely exonerated," Espy told reporters. Separate independent counsel probes of Labor Secretary Alexis Herman and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt continue.
Another smoking-related death: After months of negotiations and 3 1/2 weeks of fierce floor debate, the Senate killed what was considered the best chance at sweeping anti-tobacco legislation. Republicans were angry over the size and scope of the $516 billion tobacco bill. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott called the package, crafted by Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), a "sorry mess." The outcome was a defeat for the Clinton Administration which had pushed for the deal, and a victory for the tobacco industry which financed a costly advertising campaign to defeat the measure.
Overhauling the IRS: In a political no-brainer, legislation to overhaul the much-hated Internal Revenue Service swiftly successfully passed from the House to the Senate to the desk of President Clinton, where he signed it into law last summer. The bill was touted as a change in culture for the tax collection agency, revamping the way the agency interacts with its customers, the American taxpayers.
Jefferson's DNA: In the midst of the Clinton sex scandal, there was a historical fillip: word that DNA testing strongly bolstered the theory that President Thomas Jefferson fathered a child by slave Sally Hemmings. Inevitably, it spawned an editorial cartoon of Independent Counsel Starr staring up at Jefferson's likeness on Mt. Rushmore.
The perpetual campaign: With the most wide-open presidential race in years shaping up in 2000, there was already some jockeying for position two years before election day. Former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, a Democrat, announced an exploratory committee on December 4, and Republican Sen. John McCain followed suit on December 30. A late October poll showed Vice President Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, a Republican, as the early front-runners. But at this stage of the game, that could be a mixed blessing.
In looking back over the year's stories, the most heart-rending story we came across was this: On January 29, just a week after the Lewinsky story broke, Americans spoke out. In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll, 72 percent said they thought there had been too much coverage of the allegations that Clinton had an affair with a young White House intern.
Little did they know ...
Friday January 1, 1999
1998: Sorry, but we're not sorry to see you go