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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Clinton's crisis: Down in history

Whatever the ultimate verdict, the House vote to launch an unlimited impeachment inquiry hurts Clinton where he lives-- in the history books

By Nancy Gibbs And Michael Duffy

TIME magazine

(Time, October 19) -- Every so often, before Election Day or a moon landing or the crowning of someone as the new King, we know in advance when history will be made, and so we set the table, bring out the good silver, choose our words a bit more carefully, because the moment is one for the record. It was in honor of that prospect that the tourists lined up in the rain outside the Capitol last Thursday morning, to win a place in the gallery where they could watch the House take up the issue that it has entertained only twice before in 224 years. Some of them brought the Federalist papers in their fanny packs. Security guards, whose job is to keep the chamber doors closed, propped them open to strain for a few words of debate. Some news shows carried it live.

As it turned out, the historic moment was as dismal as the characters that brought us to it. Into the chamber of John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, lawmakers invited Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp. The legislators launched an inquiry into whether a President lied about sex under oath at a time in the nation's life when all their energy and attention might still not be sufficient to cope with a melting economy at home and elusive enemies overseas. And they did it in a way that suggested that the history they cared most about was their own.

The speeches were weightless, the arguments stale, the attendance sparse, the outcome rigged--largely because, as a White House veteran put it, "no one really believed what they were saying anyway: the Republicans don't want to impeach Clinton, and the Democrats don't want to let him off the hook." And so both sides went through the motions. One of the oldest Democratic members wandered out into the Speaker's gallery, coughed and spit on the floor. It was a day for disposable cameras, not oil paint.

But when the lawmakers were finished, they had made history in spite of themselves, adding a new member to a very select American club: Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and now Bill Clinton. In voting to open a broad impeachment inquiry, the House of Representatives cast Clinton into a tiny subset of American Presidents from which he will never be paroled, even pending good behavior. He became the third Commander in Chief to face the ignominy of an official impeachment investigation--not as bad as Nixon; worse than Johnson, whose impeachment was pure political payback by his cranky congressional opposition. It will forever be the asterisk after Clinton's name, a game-show question in the year 2020: Name the third American President to endure an impeachment inquiry.

If what transpired in the House seemed so inappropriately ordinary, that's because it was. This is not where debate happens; that belongs in the Senate. This isn't where reason presides; it was built as a People's House, the emotional crucible where boiling passions are supposed to spill over--to be cooled, as the Founders put it, in the saucer of the Upper House. So it wasn't all that strange Thursday morning that the most important constitutional debate in 24 years would be squeezed in between a class photo of the 105th Congress and a vote to award Teddy Roosevelt a posthumous Medal of Honor.

There has been a slapdash quality to this matter ever since it landed in Congress's hands. Whatever misgivings people had about Starr's process and tactics were merely an overture to these past four weeks, in which again and again the Republican leaders signaled that they were determined to Uphold the Rule of Law, even if they had to burn it down in the process. Starr's report was published before any lawmakers had even read it, much less edited it to protect innocent bystanders. Clinton's supposedly secret grand jury testimony was released after a party-line vote, and the vote to launch an inquiry was scheduled before anyone had discussed, much less decided, whether even the worst assertions against the President met the legal standard for impeachable offenses.

That pattern left the impression that the American people treat constitutional matters as more sacred than the leaders to whom they are entrusted, and the debate on Thursday sealed it. The mood was grim and rash and deeply bitter. When House minority leader Richard Gephardt mentioned on the floor the Republican lust to poke their investigative Q-Tips into the cracks of everything from campaign finance to Travelgate to the FBI files, many Republicans forgot their instructions to be dignified and cheered, yelped "Yes!" and applauded. And when Gephardt later said, in true sorrow, that "our problem is we don't trust one another," some Republicans burst out laughing.

For much of the proceedings, two-thirds of the members didn't even bother to show up to listen to their colleagues, to the point that Democrat David Obey urged the Speaker to tell members that "whatever they're doing, they ought to drop it and get their tails in here." At the outset, the proceedings were confined to two hours, which produced the spectacle of one lawmaker after another finding that he didn't have time to serve up a sound bite, much less an idea. Some complained that they had spent more time naming post offices last week. "I speak for the people who put me here and want to know how I represent their interests here," declared Connecticut Democrat Rosa DeLauro. "The Speaker chose that I should be denied an opportunity to finish my sentence. That's his judgment." Another called it a "charade of justice."

That hardly mattered to the outcome, since minds were made up before the debate began, but it reinforced the sense that this is a headlong descent into quicksand. Newt Gingrich had to raise voice and gavel repeatedly to be heard over chattering staffers and milling members. Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde invoked "our awesome and terrible responsibility," as he likened the offenses President Clinton allegedly committed by concealing his dalliance with Lewinsky to the abuses of government perpetrated by Richard Nixon. "This isn't about sexual misconduct any more than Watergate was about a third-rate burglary," proclaimed Hyde, who urged members to listen to that still, small voice whispering "duty, duty, duty." The Democrats took the opposite tack, warning of the horrors ahead. "Do we really want two more years of Monica Lewinsky?" Democrat David Bonior bellowed from the well of the House. "Two more years of Linda Tripp?"

Amid so much fire breathing, it was easy to miss the opportunity the Republicans squandered to deal Clinton a truly historic defeat. One after another, Democrats sauced their remarks with contempt for their President. Not a soul defended him; they only attacked the process. And by the end of the day, 429 of the 435 members had voted to launch an impeachment inquiry of some kind. But this was where the Democrats played a clever hand, by framing an alternative resolution favoring a more limited process. The Republicans, had they wanted to appear fair and statesmanlike, could have called the bluff and voted for the Democratic proposal, and awakened on Friday to headlines saying that more lawmakers had voted to investigate Bill Clinton than Richard Nixon. Instead they handed the Democrats the chance to tar the whole process as a vendetta. "I can't for the life of me understand why the Republicans didn't just vote for our proposal," Gephardt told TIME. "They could have made this whole thing look bipartisan. But that's clearly not what they want."

There are at least three reasons the Republicans held out for their full-bore, open-ended inquiry. First, at the very time they were lining up their votes, Appropriations Committee members were working around the clock to cobble together spending bills to avert a government shutdown at midnight Friday. In the process Republicans were trading away just about every item prized by religious conservatives, from funding school choice to defunding abortion. "We would have loved a big budget fight, but they're ready to give on anything," said a White House adviser. Another grumbled under his breath, "They've got even fewer principles than we do." The impeachment vote was the only red meat left to throw to the political base on Election Day.

Second, just before the vote, Starr made a point of teasing the lawmakers with the possibility of more disclosures, which is catnip to the hard-liners. "We would be foolish, especially with Congress going home, to circumscribe the range of inquiry," Hyde told TIME. And finally, many G.O.P. members don't want this to end quickly, before every political advantage has been reaped.

But all that math may not add up to smart politics. At this point, appeasing the political base may not be the problem: social conservatives are already so enraged at Clinton that wrapping voting booths in electrified barbed wire wouldn't keep them away from the polls. Starr may still have more to come, but his aggressive interpretation of evidence in his report suggests that if he had anything impeachable he would have sent it along. And finally, lawmakers who imagine that citizens will be grateful to them if a year from now these hearings are still going on are reading polls from another planet.

With so many Republicans unwilling to vote for the Democrats' proposal, the only suspense was how many Democrats would defect and cross party lines. The expectations game played out all week; at one point there was giddy talk of as many as 100, then 50 became the watermark, but in the end it was just 31. Only a few did so because they thought the Democratic alternative wasn't tough enough. The rest are either retiring and thus free to vote their conscience, or in a tight election fight and want to disarm their G.O.P. opponent. "By voting for this, I'll have more credibility to criticize Republicans if they continue to behave in a partisan fashion," said Ellen Tauscher, a savvy freshman from suburban San Francisco. "It doesn't appear to me now that these offenses rise to impeachable offenses," she added, but it is all her opponent will talk about. "I want to talk about why he opposes the assault-weapons ban and why he supports the flat tax. Partisan Republicans want this election to be about the President. [But] the American people are fair, hardworking and, thank God, self-centered. They want this election to be about them."

Democrats circulated polls to bolster their courage. One showed that not only Democrats but independents too would be less inclined to vote for someone who approved an impeachment inquiry. But the White House almost overdid it. Despite its insistence that the President wasn't muscling fence-sitting Democrats, some members were furious at even the appearance of pressure. Any contact with the White House was doing more harm than good. Some tactics were foolhardy on their face, such as trying to get 34 Democratic Senators--who are, after all, supposed to sit as fair-minded jurors--to announce pre-emptively that they wouldn't vote to convict Clinton if he were impeached. That brought a dark warning from the sage of the Senate, Robert Byrd of West Virginia: "I would suggest by way of friendly advice to the White House: Don't tamper with the jury."

At an Oval Office photo op Wednesday morning, Clinton gave the impression he was just gently holding hands: "I have received a large number of calls from House members," he said. "I haven't been able to return them all because we have other things to do, and I'll try to call the rest of them today," which was sort of like arguing that they were having sex with him but he wasn't having sex with them. A few hours later, his hapless new press secretary, Joe Lockhart, was forced to concede that indeed the President was making calls as well and that the ratio between calls he was making and calls he was returning was "kind of fifty-fifty." By midday the number of likely Democratic defectors seemed to be ballooning rather than shrinking. "The White House is screwing this up," complained a vote counter Wednesday midday. "We're taking on water."

The President and his party are so estranged that anything he did inspired them to complain. When he tried to argue his case, they told him to be quiet. And when he left them alone, with instructions to vote their conscience, he had somehow failed to make it easy. Complained a Democratic strategist on the Hill: "He could have said, 'I think this process is partisan and unfair, but it's inevitable, so go ahead and vote for it and let's get on with it.' But he didn't. Instead he said, 'Vote your conscience.' Now let me ask you, who the f___ is Bill Clinton to tell us about our consciences?"

It has taken a while for the White House to understand that even though Clinton's situation has improved since the G.O.P. released his videotaped testimony, he is still a long way from safety. "These guys think that because things are a little less bleak they're winning!" marvels a Democratic strategist. "As if being the third President in history to face an impeachment inquiry is a victory." Said a House Democratic leadership aide on Tuesday: "Everything's relative. At the White House, any day is a good day if he hasn't been forced to resign. That's where we are now."

By the time it was all over, it was clear that impeachment had more to do with the elections than the elections will have to do with impeachment. Everyone got just what he or she wanted out of Thursday's vote. The Republicans got a red-hot poker to prod any reluctant followers to the polls: the prospect that they might take the 42nd President, whose success they could not contain, and toss him out of office. That's a lot to boast about in some places. And the Democrats got all kinds of ammunition to rally their faithful and broil their Republican opponents for unfairness and arrogance in their solemn duty. Once more they can call the Republicans dangerous and destructive. Once more they can say vital issues are being ignored. With weapons like that, who needs vital issues?

Depending on how the midterm elections go, several things could happen after Nov. 3, and almost all of them are bad. The Judiciary Committee could proceed with hearings, put Monica under lights, and go through the sordid evidence all over again. Hyde seemed to be edging away from the Broadway show version of this last week. But the Democrats may force his hand in the hope of making the G.O.P. spectacle even more revolting, and sooner or later he is going to have to decide whether there are grounds for impeachment. Then House Speaker Gingrich will have to decide whether to schedule a vote, cut a deal or just stall for more time. Party elders have seen the toll taken in the past month and don't like the looks of the future. As one of them put it last week, "We hold all the cards, and we are losing."

Gingrich & Co. don't want to choose which path to take until the election results are in. And so both parties wait for the returns, aware that the Holy Grail of higher turnout brings with it no guarantees of deliverance from this mess. Most of Gingrich's advisers say he would prefer to avoid the unpleasant spectacle of impeachment proceedings. He knows Clinton will survive, and he prefers that to President Gore anyway. But he has no easy way out. It is not at all clear that 20 extra seats after November would make resolution of the mess any easier; indeed, if a big G.O.P. victory is read as a mandate to slowly poach the President, then impeachment becomes harder to quell. "They never have exit strategies," says a White House official. "They only have strategies for confrontation."

The Democrats aren't in an easy position either. It has long been thought that if they lose badly next month it would make a censure deal more likely. The bloodied Democratic leaders could storm the White House in mid-December, point to all their dead comrades and demand that Clinton accept terms that would bring the matter to a close with another apology, some fines and admission of guilt. But now Democratic leaders have their doubts. The more seats they lose in November, the more liberal the remaining Democratic caucus becomes, and thus the less likely it will be to support any leadership attempt to bring Clinton to negotiated justice. Just a few weeks ago, Gephardt and Senate minority leader Tom Daschle were working behind the scenes on a negotiated settlement. That talk has cooled with the growing evidence that this entire spectacle, whatever the next three months bring, might be worse for Republicans than for Democrats.

Clinton has been on that program for weeks now. In recent days he has seemed to aides almost immune to personal embarrassment, fortified by the very fact of his survival and greeting every House Democrat with a fistful of polls showing that his support is holding up. Asked after the vote Thursday what he could do to turn things around, Clinton seemed almost meditative in his detachment. "It is not in my hands," he said. "It is in the hands of Congress and the people of this country--ultimately in the hands of God. There is nothing I can do."

At least not about the impeachment process. Clinton will continue his Briefing Room presidency, ruling by Executive order. He'll focus on four big issues only: Social Security, war and peace, and to a lesser extent education and the patient bill of rights. He'll do very little campaigning during the next three weeks, certainly nothing like 1994. He may appear in a few Senate races, he'll still raise money, but barnstorming with Congressmen is out. "He's not a candidate," says an adviser. "The last thing we're going to do now is make him one." But that doesn't mean he won't still win in the end.

--Reported by Jay Branegan, James Carney, John F. Dickerson and Karen Tumulty/Washington

MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: October 19, 1998

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