Living to Tell the Tale
Clinton's enemies knew they probably could not force his removal, yet they targeted his most vulnerable point--his personal behavior. The Starr report and its descriptions of his behavior with Monica Lewinsky were designed to humiliate the President and force his resignation. Censure never was an option for his enemies, for it meant his continuation in power. Tom DeLay bluntly called for Clinton's resignation. After his committee voted to impeach Clinton, Henry Hyde publicly pleaded with the President to simplify matters and step down. Resignation was easier and had the virtue of being risk-free. Unfortunately for his enemies, and fortunately for our constitutional system, however, Clinton proved tougher. A Wall Street Journal reporter asked if he had considered resigning: "Never...I'm just going to keep showing up for work." A resignation, forced by partisan enemies, would have had profound implications for the system.
Failing to get Clinton to leave on his own, the Republicans resorted to impeachment. The House proceedings were transparently partisan, and the Senate trial was nothing more than a bizarre charade, for when the trial began, Clinton had his highest approval ratings. Much to the Republicans' dismay, he delivered his State of the Union address as scheduled, as though nothing were amiss. After all, he never doubted that he was President.
Impeachment is Clinton's Scarlet Word. He likely will be best remembered as the first elected President to be impeached. He is deservedly bitter, but his bravado--that it is a "badge of honor"--fails to consider his best defense. Only a forceful recognition that the impeachment was a farce from the outset might protect his reputation. The tack taken by Senator Ted Stevens, that most loyal of Republicans, might offer Clinton a beginning. Stevens cast one of those curious, bifurcated votes, clearly to appease the more fanatical partisans, as he voted to convict the President on one charge and acquit him on the other. But Stevens had no illusions. For him the world was still a dangerous place, and he said he would not support removal if he thought his vote would be decisive. With striking candor, Stevens said that Clinton had "not brought that level of danger to the nation which...is necessary to justify such an action." Stevens correctly gauged the national mood; the trial simply was not serious.
The impeachment proceedings left Clinton more popular than ever. History had meant nothing to his pursuers, despite wrapping themselves in the Constitution as if it were a fig leaf. But now our choices seem plain: Either impeachment will be used with promiscuity as a partisan weapon, or it will be moribund once again. Sad business, for either approach will be bad for the American constitutional system.
Clinton's story very much reflects the man we know. We never had such a public President and presidency. He was so much in our eye, and not always by his choice or by ours. He was the ultimate media President. He embodied "the government," and he was the rallying point both for those with hope and those with anger. You could not be indifferent to him. If he was the focus of your grievances, he consumed you; many of his defenders loved him largely for the enemies he had created.
Four years after he left the White House, Clinton's enemies continue their voodoo rituals, although they now seem so trivial. Meanwhile Clinton is likened to an international rock star, although Bono may have done more to improve the world over the past four years. Ex-Presidents can have a useful place. One example is Theodore Roosevelt, who was 51 when he left the presidency (Clinton was 55). TR went to Africa, returned home and then was willing to risk his accumulated political capital. You can't take it with you. Remarkably, in 1912 TR ran the most radical presidential campaign in our history. Clinton, of course, is constitutionally barred from another term. But in the last decade of his life, Roosevelt spoke out forthrightly on myriad progressive civil, social and economic concerns; he boldly criticized Woodrow Wilson's foreign policy; and he opposed Wilson's 1918 Sedition Act. He did not chase money for his monument; his ideas and actions offered his enduring contribution. He did not walk softly. Et tu, Bill Clinton?