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Sept. 19, 1998

Editorial: Clinton Coup

President Clinton and the Democrats might be one smart decision and one clear message away from ending the Monica Lewinsky impeachment business and possibly taking back the gavel from House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

The smart decision just could be to appeal to the fairness of the American people, with a simple two-part message: President Clinton was wrong, but the only way to end this escalating politics of personal destruction is to vote Democratic in November.

The message would be self-serving, but also true. Only a populist alliance between the White House and the people has any chance of stopping the Republican post-modern coup now under way in Washington. A populist alliance would put Clinton and the majority of Americans on one side and the GOP and the national media on the other.

With a Truman-esque campaign swing, Clinton then could go on the offensive against both the media and the Republicans. He could explain what's at stake if this powerful Republican attack machine is allowed to win.

He could describe an American political future that would be more the stuff of Orwell and Kafka than Jefferson and Madison. The only way to stop it, he could say, is to vote the Republicans out of office.

There is, of course, risk in a strategy that nationalizes the scandal issue. It would no doubt infuriate both the Republicans and the Washington pundits. They would call it "son of vast right-wing conspiracy." They would say that Clinton had dashed any hope for a bipartisan "grand compromise" to resolve the matter. The strategy could backfire against some Democratic candidates.

But Clinton's other choice is to wait in the White House as the Republican Right closes in, cuts off his options, demoralizes the Democratic base and energizes the conservative activists with the promise that Clinton's destruction is finally at hand.

That passive Democratic strategy carries obvious risks, too. If the Republicans emerge from the November elections with wider majorities in the House and Senate, they will claim that the vote was a mandate for impeaching Clinton anyway.

Then, Clinton could count the days before he is impeached in the House and dragged into the well of the Senate for a trial. An emboldened Republican majority and an intimidated Democratic minority likely would oust him with the necessary two-thirds vote in the Senate.

His best hope would be an outcome that lets him hang on to his job, squeaking by with one or two Senate votes to spare. Whenever he left office, however, he would be vulnerable to indictment and imprisonment, a dream come true for some Clinton-haters.

Whether or not ouster and jail are in his future, however, he would be a disgraced figure who would go down in history as a man who wouldn't fight for his own honor or for his family.

At press time, with the congressional elections just six weeks away, Clinton and the Democrats seem to have opted for the passive approach. According to some press reports, Clinton still holds out hope for that "grand compromise" which would result in his personal humiliation, but maybe not his full impeachment and imprisonment.

Meanwhile, many congressional Democrats think that if they toss the president overboard, they might lose only 20 House seats, not 40, an inspiring rallying cry if there ever was one. House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle have distanced the congressional party from Clinton, while pining for a quick end to the crisis so they can return to their "policy agenda," an unlikely proposition.

Despite those dark prospects, the Democrats don't seem capable of throwing the dice on a populist alliance and trusting in the Capra-esque decency of the American people. Yet, poll after poll shows that the people are saying "enough is enough."

By solid majorities, the people don't want Congress to drag the nation through a distasteful impeachment process. They disapprove of Clinton's behavior with Monica Lewinsky, but they still think he has done a good job -- balancing the budget, keeping the peace and spreading prosperity.

Out of a core sense of human decency, they also don't share the Republican lust for the kill. They recognize that adultery is a personal failing but not an uncommon one.

Many Americans have been through divorces and know how lawyers ask embarrassing questions to gain a tactical edge. Many citizens have answered as deceptively as Clinton did.

There is a public awareness, too, that many sanctimonious Republicans are hypocrites who have behaved badly in their marriages and committed adultery themselves. Gingrich denounced Clinton as a "misogynist," though the speaker's personal history includes pressuring his first wife into signing divorce papers while she was recovering from cancer surgery and he was taking up with another woman.

On Sept. 17, Rep. Henry Hyde, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee sitting in judgment of Clinton, was forced to admit to a five-year affair with a married mother of three, a relationship that ended the woman's marriage. Then a member of the Illinois legislature and himself a married father of four, Hyde set the woman up in an apartment and reportedly showered her with expensive gifts.

The woman, the former Cherie Snodgrass told the San Antonio Express-News that Hyde had lied at the start of the affair, claiming that he was single. Years later, when Hyde’s wife learned of the affair, Hyde dumped the woman.

Though he was 41-years-old at the time, Hyde now chalks up his behavior to "youthful indiscretion" and insists that the "statute of limitations" has run. He also did not explain how he could afford a mistress on his government salary.

He reacted testily to other inquiries into his reportedly busy extramarital life. Showing little regard for the First Amendment, Hyde announced that the factually accurate story in Salon, the online magazine [], might be judged a crime.

"Efforts to intimidate members of Congress or interfere with the discharge of their duties in relation to the impeachment matter could constitute violation of federal criminal law," Hyde declared.

Salon sourced its information to the woman's ex-husband and a retired friend in Florida who was furious at Hyde's hypocrisy. But Republicans implied, without presenting evidence, that the disclosure was a White House dirty trick. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay referred the matter to the FBI, which agreed to begin an investigation.

The Republican strategy of "criminalizing" criticism follows a similar strategy mounted by special prosecutor Kenneth Starr who suggested this year that public attacks on him might be interpreted as obstruction of justice. The GOP was offering the nation a taste of the Orwellian-Kafka politics to come.

Other prominent Clinton critics -- Reps. Dan Burton and Helen Chenoweth -- also were forced by local newspapers to admit to adultery.

Burton, who once called Clinton a "scumbag," acknowledged fathering a child out of wedlock but saw himself as the victim of a smear campaign. Chenoweth rationalized her affair with a married man on the grounds that she was "a private citizen and a single woman."

Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol came up with the novel distinction that "Republicans have old-fashioned extramarital affairs with other adults," not "a young person who works for you" as Clinton did. [WP, Sept. 11, 1998]

Those with experience in such matters note, however, that a traditional Republican affair -- or Democratic one, for that matter -- is between a 50-year-old male boss and a 20-something female secretary. Ethicists might have trouble, too, judging an affair that breaks up a family with three children more moral than one with an unmarried woman.

Besides gagging at the hypocrisy, Americans also may be more patriotic than the inside-the-Beltway elites. Millions of Americans cringed when Starr ladled out far more graphic details than necessary in his Sept. 9 impeachment report. Both in polls and in interviews, the citizenry voiced concern that the spectacle was hurting America's standing in the world, at a time of new perils in Russia and elsewhere.

As parents, many Americans also don't want their children exposed to any more salacious material. There seems to be little stomach for what the congressional Republicans are proposing -- a nasty impeachment battle with X-rated hearings beamed over daytime television.

The prospect of getting a V-chip to block out C-SPAN and the evening news is not appealing to many.

While Americans recoil, MS-NBC and CNN brag about blips in their ratings. But many Americans now are avoiding all news. Polls place journalists at the bottom in public respect.

The people correctly sense a crass opportunism in the Clinton “crisis” -- with pundits hungering for more TV face time and fatter consulting contracts.

With the polls’ coherent message of disgust, Clinton and the Democrats would seem to have little left to lose by forging that populist alliance.

But Clinton, Gephardt and Daschle show little fight left in them. They seem to have judged that appeasement is smarter than confrontation. They apparently don’t want to take the chance of reaching out to the voters with a comprehensive explanation of what all this ugliness means and the damage it is doing to democracy.

Only the Congressional Black Caucus has chosen to stand with the president, out of an instinctive wariness about lynch mobs.

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