December 17, 1999
Impeachment Plus One
Editor's Note: On Dec. 19, 1998, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives approved two counts of impeachment against President Clinton, only the second time in U.S. history that the House had voted to remove a president. The effort ultimately failed in the Senate, but the vote marked an historic moment of intense partisanship -- mixed with a media frenzy -- that continues to influence American politics and congressional actions, iincluding this fall's Senate rejection of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. This story is a look-back at what might have been and a look-ahead at what might happen next.
By Robert Parry
On Oct. 13, 1999, the American people got a reminder of the toxic political atmosphere that settled over Washington in 1998.
After a quicky debate, the Republican-controlled Senate decisively rejected the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
Officially, the Republican leaders insisted that the treaty was flawed and not in America's best interests. But in private, the vote touched off a celebration over how clumsily President Clinton had stumbled into a legislative trap set by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.
Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., added insult to Clinton's injury on the floor of the Senate. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee suggested that Great Britain's pro-treaty Prime Minister Tony Blair might have ended a hypothetical conversation with the president by saying, give Monica [Lewinsky] my regards.
To the Democrats, the message was clear. Sen. Bob Torricelli, D-N.J., called the test ban defeat a second vote on impeachment and asserted that the Republicans were acting from a blind rage against Clinton. [NBCs Meet the Press, Oct. 17, 1999]
The president himself had been asked at an Oct. 8 news conference if he thought the GOPs ambush of the test ban treaty was retaliation for his acquittal over impeachment.
I mean it might be, Clinton answered, but I dont think so. That sounds like Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, you know.
After the treatys defeat, however, Clinton was in less jovial mood. Imagine the world we will live in if they prevail, he declared.
The treaty defeat also could signal the opening battle of a new political war: over Clinton's legacy and potential GOP control of all three branches of the government in November 2000.
Assuming Kenneth Starr's replacements do not indict Bill or Hillary Clinton, the GOP's final hope for repudiating the Clinton era could be to end it with the Republicans adding the Executive Branch to their control of Congress and the federal courts.
In fall 1999, GOP leaders also showed signs of reviving a strategy of relentless investigations of the Clinton administration.
Republicans have vowed a new round of hearings on the disastrous fire at the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas, on April 19, 1993. The issue is important to the Republican conservative base, but its anti-Clinton resonance is questionable because blame for the 76 deaths would seem to fall as much on Bush administration holdovers as on Clinton administration newcomers. [See iF Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 1999]
Republicans have pressed, too, for fuller hearings into accusations that Clinton traded nuclear secrets to China for campaign cash in 1996.
But those charges showed signs of fizzling after more detailed investigations failed to establish clear evidence of espionage. Plus, whatever secrecy breaches may have occurred were traced back to the 1980s and no links were shown to Democratic fundraising. [See iF Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 1999]
Nevertheless, rank-and-file conservatives remain energized about the Clinton scandals. Texas Gov. George W. Bush has found that his standard stump speech gets the loudest ovation when he alludes to Clintons impeachment.
I will swear to uphold the honor and the dignity of the office to which I have been elected, so help me God, Bush says to thunderous applause. [NYT, Nov. 1, 1999.]
Democrats, meanwhile, continue to show little interest in past abuses traceable to Republicans.
The first anniversary of the release of the CIA inspector general's report on Nicaraguan contra-drug trafficking passed on Oct. 8 with still no comment from the White House or any high-level Democratic demand for accountability over the CIAs admission that the Reagan administration had protected contra-drug operations. [For details on the CIA's contra-drug report, see Robert Parry's Lost History.]
Vice President Gore even extended a partial apology to the Republicans for the limited investigations that the Democrats did conduct into Reagan-Bush wrongdoing.
I think that as a Democrat, I need to be open to the view of many Republicans that some boundaries were crossed in the investigations of the Reagan and Bush White Houses, Gore acknowledged to The Washington Post. [WP, Oct. 31, 1999]
Gore, whose interest in becoming an alpha male has drawn derision around the country, apparently thought that rolling over and exposing his belly would be the best way to appease the Republicans.
For their part, the Republicans have shown no hesitation nor second thoughts about exploiting what they see as evidence of questionable Clinton activities.
The GOP strategy for using scandal to destroy Clinton dates back to the 1992 campaign when the Bush administration secretly spurred on a criminal investigation of Clinton's Whitewater investment and dug into government files looking for derogatory information about the Democratic candidate. [See iF Magazine, March-April 1999.]
After Clinton won the White House, the strategy gained momentum as holdover Bush appointees pressed ahead with criminal referrals on Whitewater and leaked damaging information to the Washington press corps.
The campaign grew more serious in 1994 when a Republican-controlled three-judge panel named conservative Kenneth Starr as special prosecutor for Whitewater. Later, the panel added to Starr's portfolio inquiries into the Travel Office firings and the mistaken delivery of FBI files to the White House.
The scandal strategy crested with disclosures about Clinton's sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky and the resulting impeachment battles of 1998-99. After Clinton's Senate acquittal, the Republicans retreated, presumably for fear that more investigations would alienate American voters and jeopardize the party's chances in 2000.
Still, many Republicans look back wistfully to October 1998, the high point of the strategy to oust Clinton through scandal. At that moment, GOP leaders could see their long-sought goal clearly ahead, like some hated enemy capital rising above a final row of fortifications.
The GOP's prospects looked bright, indeed. Among Washington insiders, there was near unanimity about the impending Republican landslide, with the GOP expected to enlarge its House majority by 20 or more seats and possibly boost Republican control of the Senate to a filibuster-proof 60 seats.
Behind closed doors, Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, was planning to expand the impeachment investigation. Besides the Lewinsky sex-and-lies case, he intended to tack on the China accusations and to accuse senior Justice Department officials, including Attorney General Janet Reno, of possible obstruction of justice.
"I feel they [Justice Department officials] were covering up for the president," David Schippers, Hyde's investigative counsel, explained in a post-impeachment interview with the conservative magazine Human Events. "And you would have anticipated that that process which would have gone on in the House Judiciary would have involved Chinagate leads -- I mean if you're gonna have an impeachment inquiry, you inquire."
Under the Hyde-Schippers plan, the crescendo of Clinton investigations was to build though late 1998 and into 1999 with far-reaching hearings that would have lasted into the spring of 1999.
After a strong House vote for impeachment, the Senate would have conducted a full-scale trial, with Republicans hopeful that they'd be close enough to the necessary two-thirds majority to pry loose some Democratic defectors and convict Clinton.
That would have made Clinton the first president in U.S. history to be removed by a Senate conviction and would have made clear the power of the congressional Republican majority.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich even was toying with a strategy that would have removed Gore next and made Gingrich himself president. But whether Gore survived or not, the dispirited Democrats would have been in disarray and the GOP would have been in a strong position to consolidate their control in 2000.
While Republicans daydreamed about their impending victory in fall 1998, congressional Democrats were down in the dumps. They foresaw disaster at the polls and didn't even have a slogan for regaining control of the House.
Instead of a "take the gavel back from Newt" rallying cry, Democratic leaders morosely discussed who would be part of a post-election delegation that would troop down to the White House and ask Clinton to resign for the good of the party.
For Washington pundits, fall 1998 was a time of great excitement, too, not to mention nearly unlimited opportunities to appear on television. There was the smell of political blood in the air as news shows devoted hour after hour of coverage to the Lewinsky case and other sex allegations against the president.
Though the Washington Establishment was never known for its high sexual mores -- Roger Wilkins chuckled once that God knows, most people in Washington have led robust sexual lives -- there was wide agreement that Clinton had soiled Washington's reputation and had to go. [WP, Nov. 2, 1998]
Still, some silver linings could be discerned inside the dark clouds. Amid the head shaking over the miscreant president, the pundits agreed that the nation was lucky that Henry Hyde would oversee the impeachment process. The Washington Post had hailed Hyde as an "unimpeachable character." [WP, May 12, 1998]
But, on Nov. 3, 1998, to the amazement of Washington's political class, the voters stunned the conventional wisdom.
Rather than follow the path marked out by the Republicans and the pundits, the voters cut the GOP House majority by five, tossed out some of the most outspoken conservative senators and gave the GOP no net increase in the upper chamber.
After recovering from the shock, conservative ethical specialists clucked about the immorality of the American people. GOP congressmen blamed Gingrich for the calamity and demanded his resignation. The pundits noted that if they had been wrong, so had everyone else.
The election also disrupted the impeachment plans. In the Human Events interview, Schippers groused that if the election had gone as expected, "history would have been totally different. If, as anticipated, they [the Republicans] had picked up four or five seats in the Senate and 20 seats in the House, we would probably be just reaching a stage now where we'd be ready to impeach." [Washington Times, May 28, 1999]
Instead, facing a narrower House majority in January 1999, the Republican leaders accelerated their schedule to finish the impeachment work in the lame-duck Congress.
They jettisoned thoughts of a broader investigation and operated solely from the Lewinsky referral sent to Congress by Starr. Hyde pushed the impeachment out of committee on party-line votes and shipped it to the House, where Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, drove it through, again along party lines.
But in January-February 1999, the case floundered in the new Senate. Clinton's lawyers exposed the key obstruction of justice charge as a flimsy circumstantial construct based more on speculation than evidence.
Though the factual underpinnings were giving way, the Republicans still held most of their members in line, but could not muster even a simple majority of the Senate for conviction, let alone the two-thirds majority they needed.
After his acquittal -- and facing an emerging crisis in Yugoslavia -- Clinton tried to return to a politics of normalcy.
He made no effort to explain his apparent belief that the scandals were exploited as a new kind of political warfare. He did nothing to fill in the details of Hillary Clinton's famous charge that he had been the target of a "vast right-wing conspiracy."
Five months after Clintons aquittal, one of his lawyers, Greg Craig, told a legal conference that "in my view, the impeachment and trial of President Clinton ranks as one of the greatest failures of the American system in my lifetime." But Craig offered no comprehensive analysis of how the system had failed. [The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 23, 1999]
Without any deeper explanation, the Washington conventional wisdom quickly re-established itself: that Clinton had been guilty and should have been convicted.
To the pundits, the president was a kind of political O.J. Simpson who had escaped conviction through a combination of smart lawyering, mistakes by the investigators and a form of jury nullification as expressed through the 1998 elections.
Republican leaders continued to declare that they had no trust in Clinton and acted accordingly, even repudiating him on high-profile foreign policy issues. They showed flurries of interest in resuming the scandal investigations over China and Waco.
The Washington media, meanwhile, congratulated itself on its coverage of the Lewinsky scandal, handing out awards to the reporters who had disseminated the information.
The media also concluded that the nation suffered from "Clinton fatigue" and longed for an end to the "Clinton squalor." Early coverage of the 2000 Campaign tried to hammer all questions about Vice President Gore into Clinton-shaped holes, whether they fit Gore's problems or not.
Yet, despite the media's analysis, much of the public seemed to have emerged from the searing impeachment battles with an even deeper contempt for the political Establishment.
According to polls, the national news media had sunk to the bottom in public respect and was even seen as a threat to democracy. To many Americans, the media had exposed itself as a shallow, ratings-driven business that lacked judgment, proportionality and respect for common decency.
Indeed, the depth of the voters' distrust in the media and in the political status quo could be the wild card in 2000. It's no longer clear that favored treatment from the news media will help a candidate or that media condemnation will destroy one.
But what could be most difficult to gauge in the months ahead is whether the Republicans can play to that growing cynicism with a new round of Clinton scandal investigations -- or whether the public simply will dismiss anything that comes out of Washington now as just more politics.