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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Washington burning

For only the second time in history, the House impeaches the President as bombs burst in air and partisanship flares out of control

By Richard Lacayo

December 21, 1998
Web posted at: 2:56 p.m. EST (1956 GMT)

TIME magazine

In the end the House impeachment vote finally did feel historic. But only if you kept in mind just how soiled and cartwheeling real events can be. "History...is indeed little more than a chronicle of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind," wrote Edward Gibbon, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and a man who died 200 years before Monica Lewinsky met Bill Clinton.

Or William Jefferson Clinton, to use his ceremonious full name, which is the only one that will do for this. On Saturday, Dec. 19, William Jefferson Clinton, the 42nd President of the United States, became the second President in American history to be impeached by the House of Representatives.

Which was, by that time, a viper's nest, and a place sent reeling by the events it had been called upon to absorb in a few short days. All the same, as the voting proceeded on the four articles of impeachment, the mood that this whole strange year was always supposed to invoke but almost never did--sober-minded, even a little abashed--finally settled across the capital and maybe across the country. Every imaginable motive was still at work in "the process," every kind of ugly reckoning is probably still to come, but for once all the players seemed truly struck by the seriousness of the game. In a passionate floor speech before the vote, minority leader Richard Gephardt cried, "May God have mercy on this Congress." It was maybe the one sentiment that could have got a bipartisan vote of approval.

A few minutes later, by a vote of 228 to 206, the House adopted the first article of impeachment, accusing the President of lying under oath to Kenneth Starr's grand jury about his affair with Lewinsky. Five members of each party defected. A second article, which accused Clinton of committing perjury in the Paula Jones suit, was rejected by a vote of 229 to 205. The House approved a third article, which accused Clinton of obstructing justice by coaching his secretary, Betty Currie, to lie about his relationship with Lewinsky, by a vote of 221 to 212. But a fourth and final article, which accused him of abuse of power for giving dismissive or evasive answers to some of the 81 questions put to him by the House Judiciary Committee, was rejected by a vote of 285 to 148.

That was the climax of an incomparably tumultuous and unnerving week. Surreal was the word of the moment for a three-day period in which the President was impeached over lies about sex, the incoming Speaker of the House, Bob Livingston, resigned on the House floor because of his own adulteries, and the air over Baghdad exploded. So did the air over Washington, where the constant outcry over sex, lies, desperation and hypocrisy had created an atmosphere of venom and mayhem. All around the city there was a feeling that brutal, lasting damage had been done to an already threadbare culture of political accommodation, that impeachment would be not the end of something but the beginning. And that it would be something bad.

On Tuesday, as impeachment became a sure thing, Bill Clinton was literally in the air. After his four-day official trip to Israel, he was flying home on Air Force One. While in Israel and the Gaza Strip, where he had become the first U.S. President to set foot on Palestinian-controlled soil, Clinton still hoped that once he got back home there would be time to sit down with House G.O.P. centrists and bid for their support. But the strain was building. At his joint press conference in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his answers were weary and sometimes brisk to the point of anger. And now his aides were telling him that impeachment, which everyone believed was impossible just a few weeks earlier, was inevitable. Undecided Republicans were falling into the party line.

One reason was the leadership vacuum in the House G.O.P. Newt Gingrich was out of the picture, and Speaker-elect Livingston was loath to guide impeachment proceedings, perhaps because he feared that his own extramarital affairs would be exposed. Control of the process had fallen to House whip Tom DeLay, the hardest of anti-Clinton hard-liners, who had ensured that moderates favoring censure had no place to go.

It was aboard Air Force One that Clinton confronted what had become his simultaneous preoccupation: Iraq. Later that afternoon, he took part in an hour-long onboard conference call with Vice President Gore and a group of foreign policy advisers that included National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, Defense Secretary William Cohen, CIA Director George Tenet and General Henry Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In the call, discussion focused first on the report that would be delivered later that day by Richard Butler, chairman of UNSCOM, the U.N. special commission that oversees weapons inspections in Iraq. In scathing terms, Butler would say that the "full cooperation" that Saddam had promised on Nov. 15, in the face of an earlier military buildup against him, had turned out to be a sham.

The group quickly agreed that air strikes were the right option. But Clinton decided he would wait to see Butler's actual report before giving the go order. Before the call ended, there was a second discussion, this time about what Berger carefully described as "any other factors that should lead us to do anything differently." What he meant was the certainty of a political storm in Washington about the timing of the attacks. Despite the President's notorious ability to compartmentalize, holding one set of problems separate in his mind from another, there were no compartments so airtight that they could keep him from noticing that a bombing campaign--even a well-justified one--would both point up the dignity of his role as Commander in Chief and perhaps also slow the impeachment vote. So Clinton did virtually all the talking. According to one participant in the call, the President concluded that if it was necessary to go forward with the assaults for national security reasons, then it would be impossible to explain how he could refuse to order the attacks because of potential political fallout.

In Washington, meanwhile, baffled and depressed Democrats were making a last struggle to keep Clinton out of the House impeachment trap. Minority leader Gephardt and his staff were trying to persuade other G.O.P. moderates to join Representative Christopher Shays on a visit to Clinton in person, hear him say something like "I lied"--just not those exact words--then emerge from the White House and tell the press he had said it. But there were no moderates moderate enough for that.

Clinton made the final go decision on Iraq on Wednesday, at a 7:30 a.m. White House meeting with his national security team. Then he kept an already scheduled meeting with Representative Amo Houghton, a New York Republican who opposed impeachment. But their talk focused now on the Senate and whether victory there, for so long a certainty, was really all that certain. Houghton presented Clinton with what he hoped might be the model for a tough Senate resolution of censure. It included a half-million-dollar payment to the U.S. Treasury, cancellation of this year's State of the Union address and provisions barring Clinton in the future from raising funds for the Democratic Party and holding elected office. Clinton, who cherishes his power with the spoken word, balked at giving up the State of the Union. He seemed willing to consider the others. After the meeting, Houghton described the President as "whipped and down."

But not so much that it kept him from taking to heart a message that Houghton had delivered from Bob Dole: that Clinton had no time to lose in lobbying the Senate against conviction. That afternoon the President started making calls to Senate friends such as Ted Kennedy and Connecticut's Chris Dodd. Clinton accepted that he was going to be impeached but insisted he wouldn't resign or even admit to perjury because he did not believe he had lied. What he wanted now was assurance that there were enough secure votes to fend off conviction in a Senate in which ouster would require a dozen Democrats to join all the Republicans. That large a defection seemed highly unlikely. But impeachment is a world where sure things dematerialize from one day to the next. As a senior Democratic Senate staff member put it, "We were watching all of these moderate [House] Republicans defect Tuesday, and we thought, 'O.K., nothing is certain.' "

Early Wednesday Clinton called Speaker-elect Livingston to discuss Iraq for the second time that week, this time to say an attack had to begin immediately in order to take Saddam by surprise and avoid starting the campaign during Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar. In turn, Livingston promised the President he would delay the impeachment vote.

That wasn't a promise he could make. At once Livingston came under pressure from G.O.P. hard-liners not to postpone the vote for longer than one day. DeLay and majority leader Dick Armey were especially angry to learn that Livingston had already told Dick Gephardt he would postpone the vote. As a G.O.P. leadership source said, "The new Speaker has to learn that he can't make deals with the Democrats without consulting the elected leadership first." But even some G.O.P. moderates who had come out against Clinton wanted a quick vote before opponents in their districts had time to organize a backlash.

By that time, however, the air strikes were under way. In his televised address to the nation Wednesday night, during which the bags under his eyes hung like snow melting down rooftops, the President argued that a delay of even a couple of days would have given Saddam time to prepare for the attack by dispersing his forces and hiding his weapons. As expected, Republicans were suspicious that the entire campaign was an attempt by Clinton to postpone the impeachment vote and buy time to find some way out, perhaps even by dragging the process into the next Congress, where there would be five more Democrats in the House.

Still, no one expected the stunning blow that came in the statement by Senate majority leader Trent Lott not long before the first airbursts were seen over Baghdad: "I cannot support this military action in the Persian Gulf at this time. Both the timing and the policy are subject to question." This was a break with tradition. Even when Ronald Reagan's 1983 invasion of Grenada just two days after the terrorist bombing of Marine barracks in Beirut led to more attacks at home on U.S. policy in Lebanon, a skeptical Democratic leadership refrained from attacking the President's motives.

In a conference call with his Senate leaders earlier that day, Lott had learned that they were as dubious of Clinton as he was. All the same, Livingston rushed that night to hold a press conference at which he underlined Republican backing for the mission. But even he was careful to say he supported "the troops," not the President. Late that same day, Defense Secretary Cohen, a former Republican Congressman and then Senator from Maine, responded to an invitation from senior G.O.P. House leaders to justify the attack from the well of the House. "The mood was fairly toxic," says Cohen. "There was a lot of anger there."

By Thursday morning, Livingston was paid a visit by an impatient DeLay. "We've got to get it done," he said. "The President is playing games." DeLay believed that Clinton's goal was to push off the vote until just before Christmas, making the Republicans look just as nasty as if they had voted during the Iraq assaults. According to some sources, DeLay hinted that if Livingston held the vote off, he wouldn't last long as Speaker, a job he had yet to assume. "We're going to get hit either way," he told Livingston. "Get it over with, or the members will rebel."

By that time Livingston knew that he needed DeLay's help; the story of his adulterous affairs was about to go public. At midday the two men began conferring on how to handle the impending blowup. Within a few hours, the Speaker-designate had decided to go public with his problems before anyone else did. Livingston considered offering to resign in the conference meeting; if he did, DeLay planned to stand up, praise Livingston for his courage and refuse his resignation.

Republicans who gathered for a meeting of the full conference Thursday evening thought they were there to discuss the impeachment vote. It was not until 45 minutes into the meeting that Livingston quietly dropped his bomb. "I wanna talk to you about something I'm not proud of, something I wanted you to know. I've been Larry Flynted."

He then read a statement: "It has suddenly come to my attention that there are individuals working together with the media, who are investigating my personal background in an effort to find indiscretions which may be exploitable against me and my party on the eve of the upcoming historic vote on impeachment." The room went silent. Members looked around at one another, their eyes wide. "When I did an early interview with the media after announcing my candidacy for Speaker, I told a reporter that I was running for Speaker, not sainthood. There was a reason for those words." More stunned looks. "My fate is in your hands," he concluded.

When Livingston was finished, his Republican colleagues gave him a standing ovation. Before they left the room, the assembled Republicans seemed to have agreed on answers to the inevitable questions from the media. As he emerged from the meeting, Judiciary Committee member Asa Hutchinson was sullen and slow to speak. "I don't think we should feel uncomfortable proceeding to the floor tomorrow," he finally said. New Jersey Representative Bob Franks called it "a matter between Speaker Livingston and [his wife]."

All the same, a lot of Republicans were privately uneasy about the fallout from Livingston's announcement. The charges against Clinton boiled down to lying under oath about a sexual relationship with Lewinsky. The spectacle of House Republicans applauding one adulterer just before condemning another was not calculated to help them take the high ground. "The word that comes to mind is hypocrite," said Congresswoman Maxine Waters, a California Democrat.

That was the setting for the impeachment debate that began Friday morning. Ray LaHood, the Illinois Congressman chosen by Livingston to preside over the debate, felt compelled to open with the warning to House members that they could not make personally disparaging remarks. For the most part, the debate never veered into that territory, though little was said that was likely to change many minds, in the House or outside. Republicans argued that Clinton had broken the law. Democrats shot back that even if he did, this did not rise to the level of an impeachable offense. But the real struggle was going on outside the debate. Republicans, including DeLay and Henry Hyde, had begun calling on Clinton to resign. At a press briefing, presidential spokesman Joe Lockhart complained bitterly that House leaders like DeLay, who had promoted impeachment to wavering moderates as nothing more serious than a kind of Super Censure, were now using it to demand that Clinton step aside.

On Saturday, the day of the impeachment vote, there was a resignation that stunned the capital, but it wasn't Clinton's. A slow-moving Livingston, head bowed, took the floor to deliver what his colleagues believed would be a speech about the President's transgressions and instead gave a speech about his own. Then Livingston made his way to the now common Republican argument that if Clinton truly wanted to avoid the nightmare of a Senate trial, he should do the honorable thing. "You sir," he addressed the President, "may resign your post." Democrats hissed and moaned. Waters of California shouted, "You resign!" More Democrats followed, each shouting, "You resign! You resign!"

The cacophony lasted nearly a minute, maybe more. And when it was over, Livingston, who stood bracing his tall, lean frame over the lectern, lifted his head up and delivered the sentences that sucked the air out of the House chamber. "I can only challenge you in such fashion that I am willing to heed my own words," he said, still addressing Clinton. At that there was an audible, collective gasp. At least one Republican lawmaker softly spoke the plea, "No!"

But it was yes. Livingston announced that he would not stand for Speaker and would even resign his House seat within six months. When he finished, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle rose and applauded. Republicans surged toward Livingston and slapped him on the shoulders or hugged him. Florida Representative Mark Foley, sitting just a few feet from where Livingston spoke, wept openly. Republicans like Ed Bryant, a Judiciary Committee member, were dizzy. When he goes home to Tennessee, he said, "I will be taking my phone off the hook."

From the White House, Clinton himself picked up the narrative of this fevered impeachment day and twisted it again. He took the extraordinary step, by way of an announcement made by his press secretary, Lockhart, of urging Livingston not to resign. On the House floor, some Democrats did the same, hoping their words would somehow be taken as a white flag: We forgive you, forgive us. Livingston's resignation, after all, had suddenly become the best evidence that this whole Washington mess wasn't about lying after all--it was about sex.

It was Gephardt who made the Democrats' pre-Christmas offer of peace ring across the capital. "We need to start healing; we need to start binding up our wounds; we need to end this downward spiral that will end with the death of our representative democracy," Gephardt said as he urged in vain for the chance to vote on censure. Linking Livingston with Clinton, Gephardt said, "Our Founding Fathers created a system of government of men, not of angels. We are on the brink of the abyss. The only way we stop this insanity is through the force of our own will."

Even a smattering of Republicans applauded. When he was done, Democrats began an ovation that lasted for more than five minutes. But that momentary prospect of reconciliation evaporated. When the vote to impeach the President on the first article of impeachment passed the 218 mark, there was a moment of quickly stifled applause in the chamber. Mostly there was nothing--no acknowledgment of what had just happened, no electricity in the air. A short time later, a House Republican who had just voted against the President pulled a reporter aside. "He had it coming," the lawmaker said of Clinton. "He got what he deserved."

When the first vote came, Clinton was closeted with the Rev. Tony Campolo, one of the pastors who have been offering him spiritual guidance this year. And when he emerged from the Oval Office, Hillary had her arm around her husband's as the two of them, along with the Vice President, Gephardt and chief of staff John Podesta, made their way to the Rose Garden, a bare magnolia tree behind them, a darkening gray sky above. Not a single speaker there, not even the President, uttered the word impeachment. Instead, Clinton vowed, with steel in his jaw, to serve until "the last hour of the last day of my term."

In many ways, last week's drama was about revenge. Clinton's impeachment is the latest episode in the intensification of congressional partisanship that dates back at least to the Democrat-controlled Senate's 1987 rejection of Robert Bork for the Supreme Court. It includes the scuttling of George Bush's nomination of John Tower to become Defense Secretary amid rumors about his drinking and behavior toward women, as well as the fight over Clarence Thomas, the ouster of House Speaker Jim Wright on ethics charges and the fight that Newt Gingrich led over the misuse of the House bank. Congress is now involved in an endless cycle of payback that makes the warring House of Atreus seem like just one more placid Greek family.

Though less partisan than the House, the Senate that will now decide Clinton's fate is a place he has never had easy dealings with. Even Democrats there felt betrayed by him on welfare reform and Medicare cuts. To act as his emissary to the Senate, Clinton would like to bring on board George Mitchell, the former Senate majority leader, whose job will be largely to explore what many on the President's team believe is just the slimmest chance of a deal that would fend off a full trial. The President's lawyers, David Kendall, Charles Ruff and Greg Craig, are already in all-out pretrial mode, aggressively mastering the details of the evidence and planning strategy for questioning witnesses.

Among Senate Democrats, there's no obvious candidate to defend Clinton as adroitly as Barney Frank did in the House. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who forcefully called Clinton to account over the summer, is still too undecided about him. Ted Kennedy and Virginia's Charles Robb, who have their own histories with women, are unlikely to come forward aggressively on a matter like this. Robert Byrd of West Virginia has already said he would oppose any attempt to sidestep a trial, such as a quick route to censure. Senators with presidential ambitions, like Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, will have their own futures to consider.

On the Republican side, Lott is eager to get impeachment out of the way. But conservatives put him in his leadership post, and Senate majority whip Don Nickles of Oklahoma, another anti-Clinton hard-liner, is likely to play the same role in the Senate that DeLay played in the House--making sure the process is driven to the bitter end. After the impeachment vote, Lott issued a statement saying the date on which a trial would begin depended on how much time was needed for the President's lawyers to complete pretrial motions.

The Republicans have to keep in mind that a prolonged trial might also turn public opinion more strongly against them, a trend some polls are already showing. All the same, it doesn't give the White House much comfort when even Democrats like Bob Kerrey of Nebraska warn that Clinton should not assume an acquittal. Wellstone guesses there may be about 50 Senators like himself who would support a compromise censure. But, he adds, "exactly how we get to that point, I'm not sure." And Mike DeWine, a Republican Senator from Ohio who is opposed to censure on constitutional grounds, suspects that anything can happen once the Senate begins trying to uncover the facts. "It has a much different impact, hearing the witnesses," explains DeWine, a former prosecutor. "When you get into a trial all bets are off. You just don't know which way it will go."

He's right. The next few weeks will be a deadly game in which each side sees who can take more pain, the President or the Republican Party. Or the American people as a whole, who will have to sit through a trial that may end up featuring the detailed testimony of Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp. When Representative Houghton had his meeting with the President on Wednesday, he gave him a gift, a new biography of Isaiah Berlin, the late political thinker who taught at Oxford University when Clinton studied there in the late '60s. One of Berlin's favorite epigrams was from the philosopher Immanuel Kant: "Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing can be made." He was right too.

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


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Cover Date: December 28, 1998

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