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Dec. 29, 1998



‘Clinton Impeached’

Watching President Clinton appeal to House Republicans in the weeks before his impeachment brought to mind the president in the movie "Independence Day."

Amid worldwide devastation, the hapless president tries to negotiate with a captured alien.

"What is it you want us to do?" the president asks.

"Die," the alien replies.

The national Republican Party -- now dominated by some of the most extreme elements in U.S. politics -- has made clear it wants President Clinton's political death, nothing less.

The larger picture might be even uglier. Beyond ousting Clinton, this new GOP is edging toward a modern style of totalitarianism that uses media, scandal and investigations to destroy adversaries who lack appropriate "values."

And “scandals" now can be virtually created by the right's awesome attack machinery: a vast conservative media, including dominance of Washington’s pundit shows; well-funded "watchdog" groups and think tanks; legal groups that file civil suits against ideological enemies; far-right federal judges, including ones controlling key appeals courts and the special prosecutor apparatus; and both houses of Congress with their broad powers to investigate.

This process also is not limited to Clinton and those who lack the right “values.” It can be applied to anyone who gets in the way, even those like Vice President Al Gore with his homey reputation as a decent family man.

The Clinton impeachment on Dec. 19 represented a high-water mark for this strategy, a demonstration of the Republican Right’s raw political power.

Even without the charisma of Ronald Reagan or the scheming of Newt Gingrich, the right-dominated House GOP caucus impeached a U.S. president for only the second time in history.

The House Republicans looked clunky at times, making self-righteous speeches and losing Speaker-designate Bob Livingston to his own sex scandal. But they still whipped GOP "moderates" into line and drove home two articles of impeachment against Clinton.

The vote fulfilled a dream of many conservatives who have pined for Clinton's impeachment since his election in 1992.

In February 1994 -- before Paula Jones burst onto the scene and long before Monica Lewinsky flashed her thongs at the president -- "Impeach Clinton" bumper stickers and buttons were stacked up at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.

All that was needed was an offense that could be pinned on Clinton. But the supposedly big issues -- Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate, Vincent Foster's death, Mena drug trafficking, even the wild-eyed lists of "mysterious deaths" -- failed to generate anything that approached convincing evidence.

Yet, given the right’s heavy investment in anti-Clinton propaganda, impeaching Clinton over something -- over anything -- became an increasingly desperate need among conservatives. So, they turned to Clinton’s obvious weakness: sex.

In January 1998, cornered by conservative lawyers for Paula Jones’s dubious civil suit, Clinton tried to squirm out of a question about his adulterous relationship with Lewinsky and finally gave his enemies the pretext that they long had sought.

With Starr’s “lies and cover-up” impeachment report in September, Republicans began daydreaming about an electoral landslide and the ouster of both Clinton and Gore. But the voters shocked Republicans and the pundits by cutting the GOP's House majority almost in half.

The outcome forced Gingrich's resignation. But after six years of hurling "scandals" at Clinton, the House GOP could not drop the one make-able case against the president. The Republicans were aided immeasurably by a Washington media addicted to the Lewinsky story.

In the weeks after the election, in a “lame-duck” session, the Republican Right led the renewed assault. Rep. Henry Hyde and GOP partisans on the House Judiciary Committee spurned any talk of compromise despite Clinton’s offer to accept a strong censure for his actions.

Along party-line votes, the House approved two articles of impeachment and delivered them to the Senate. The Senate now can oust the president with a two-thirds vote, an act that would make Clinton the first president in U.S. history to face that humiliation.

As the impeachment drive advanced, however, two key Republicans -- Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott -- were exposed as having given fawning speeches to a white racialist group called the Council of Conservative Citizens.

The CCC was an outgrowth of the segregationist Citizens Councils which battled efforts to integrate the South in the 1950s and ‘60s. The CCC’s newsletter carries articles denouncing interracial marriage and promoting white supremacy.

One column argued that Clinton’s sexual behavior suggests that he might be “America’s first liberal black president” or, at minimum, “an Oreo turned inside out” whose “beliefs are actually a result of his inner black culture.”

Lott addressed the group in 1992 and maintained close political ties to its leaders. Barr gave a keynote speech to the group in 1998 and participated in a “youth panel” where the CCC’s racial views were expressed explicitly.

After Barr’s CCC participation was exposed in December, he denied sharing the group’s desire for racial segregation. Barr insisted that he was a victim of Clinton backers who are “falsely accusing me of harboring racist views.”

Lott first declared that he had “no firsthand knowledge of the group’s views.” But then a copy of an old CCC newsletter surfaced, quoting Lott in 1992 as he praised CCC members as people who “stand for the right principles and the right philosophy.” [WP, Dec. 12, 16 & 19, 1998]

Clinton’s views on race may have inspired fierce opposition from another leading Republican. Last spring, House Republican Whip Tom DeLay lashed out at Clinton’s mild apology for America’s role in African slavery. During a state trip to Africa, Clinton had expressed regret for slavery.

In reaction, DeLay called Clinton “a flower child with gray hairs doing exactly what he did back in the ‘60s: he’s apologizing for the actions of the United States. ...

“He didn’t quite apologize for the chieftains in Uganda that were selling the blacks to the slave traders, did he? Heh. ... He didn’t talk about what’s-his-name, Idi Amin, that killed 500,000 people in Uganda. He didn’t apologize for that.” [NYT, March 28, 1998]

Meanwhile, conservative special prosecutor Kenneth Starr kept splitting hairs when he finally responded to questions from the House Judiciary Committee’s Democrats who were skeptical about the honesty of his earlier testimony.

In a Dec. 11 letter, Starr continued to deny that his investigators ever asked Monica Lewinsky “to tape record a conversation with President Clinton or Vernon Jordan.”

But Starr added, “Lewinsky was asked to cooperate” in an investigation in which Clinton and Jordan were subjects. “Ms. Lewinsky was told that cooperation would include ... possibly tape recording conversations with some witnesses and subjects.”

That sounded like a confirmation of what he had just denied. At minimum, Starr appeared to be as guilty as Clinton was judged to be for giving misleading answers.

Starr was similarly evasive when he denied that his agents told Lewinsky that she was less likely to get immunity if she contacted her attorney, Francis Carter.

In elaborating on his denial, Starr again contradicted himself: “We warned her ... that any cooperation could be less effective if others (including Mr. Carter) knew she was cooperating. We also told her that she would receive greater benefit for more effective cooperation.”

Starr seemed to be making distinctions without differences.

But the Republican leadership still won the impeachment showdown. The conservatives finally had their "Clinton Impeached" headline.

The political drama then shifted to the Senate. Conservatives immediately began lobbying for Clinton’s conviction and removal from office.

Some conservatives maintained that the real case against Clinton rested in what had not been included in the impeachment articles. Some likened impeaching Clinton over sex lies to convicting Al Capone on tax evasion, when cases could not be proved about more serious felonies.

DeLay urged senators to examine evidence in the House files which had not been publicly released -- apparently pertaining to disputed allegations that Clinton made an unwanted advance toward a woman in the 1970s. The House whip said the secret evidence would persuade the Senate to proceed to a full trial and conviction.

But the GOP's slide into this Kafka-esque land -- where punishment is handed out less for the charge at issue than for secret allegations -- finally jarred millions of Americans awake.

The grassroots group, Censure and Move On, vowed to raise money and challenge pro-impeachment Republicans. Other activists staged rallies in New York City and Los Angeles.

Many moderate Republican voters appear to be having second thoughts, too, about the direction of the hard-right congressional leadership.

Even the Democrats may be grasping the threat. Following the impeachment votes, House members rallied to Clinton's side, as the public boosted Clinton's approval ratings to above 70 percentage points in opinion polls.

The Republican failure to improve on the party’s 55-45 Senate majority made garnering a two-thirds vote in the Senate difficult. Some senators expressed the hope that a messy trial could be averted and a censure resolution negotiated.

Yet, even the possible end of the Clinton impeachment saga will not stop the right's historic power grab. That will continue as long as the conservative movement invests heavily and smartly in its high-octane attack machinery -- and as long as that machinery goes unchallenged.

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