News and Features
If Gore loses the White House--and some of you reading this will know whether or not he did--he'll have no one but himself to blame. Readers of this page know I've been something of a Naderskeptic all along (I'm planning a tactical vote for him here in Gore-solid New York, but if I lived in a toss-up state I'd vote Democratic and hope you would--or did--too). Still, it's not Nader's fault that huge numbers of voters don't care if Bush is a reactionary moron and find his Christian frat boy act appealing. Ralph didn't tell Gore to go after the dithering undecideds and to forget about energizing his base and reaching out to suburban and working women. Remember when abortion and gun control were going to be key issues? When the Million Moms were going to sway the election? Ralph didn't make Gore distance himself so far from Clinton--a genius campaigner with a 60 percent approval rating--that he couldn't plausibly claim the "good" economy as his own, even as he also wasn't willing to acknowledge the millions who have been victimized by Clinton's policies on prisons, welfare, drugs, civil liberties, privacy. Who was stopping Gore from announcing that on second thought, sending a $1.3 billion anti-drug aid package to Colombia was a terrible idea? Wouldn't that have been a better way to prove he was his "own man," not Clinton's, than spouting sanctimonious pieties about faith and family?
Or take capital punishment: When the issue came up in the debates, Gore and Bush both said they were for the death penalty. Gore could easily have said that, like Republican Governor Ryan of Illinois, he supported the death penalty but was troubled by studies showing an alarming number of false convictions in capital cases, and so he also supported a moratorium on executions. Sure, some of the undecideds would have peeled off to Bush--you can imagine the campaign ads in which relatives retell ghastly murders of loved ones and accuse the Vice President of denying them "closure." But then Gore could have run ads highlighting Bush's appalling record as death-penalty king of Texas, and his lazy and frivolous approach to the whole issue, which troubles some conservatives and has even become a standard laugh line for David Letterman. By taking a political risk--in a righteous cause--Gore would have been able to counteract the popular view of him as calculating and expedient, which is doing him more harm than his actual positions, which voters tell pollsters they like.
The same could be said of Gore's problems to his left. If Gore wants to defuse Nader, why doesn't he fire back on a whole range of substantive issues instead of acting like Nader has stolen votes that somehow belong to Gore by right? Gore has a record as Vice President, and he presumably believes in the positions that drive Naderites wild--for NAFTA, for military interventions around the globe, for welfare reform, for ladling vast sums of money into the Pentagon. He could take the trouble to explain why he is right and Nader is wrong on the issues that divide them, or why he is being wrongly blamed for policies that were actually the work of a Republican Congress, or why he is the best person to undo the damage Nader has identified.
Nader's not perfect, after all--Gore could ask why he doesn't belong to the party whose ticket he heads, why he told Outside magazine he would prefer a win for Bush (readers will remember he told me the opposite), why he has so little support among the people--minorities, women, blue-collar workers--whose interests he claims to represent. He could point out that while four years of Republicanism may move a few to the left, it may also drive far more people to embrace the Democrats, any Democrats, so the whole Nader phenomenon contains the seeds of its own destruction, in which case why not cut to the chase and vote for the Democrat now? He could make plenty of hay out of Nader's ill-informed and self-serving insistence that a Bush win will not endanger reproductive rights--most recently, Nader told Sam Donaldson that even if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, "it just reverts it back to the states." Just! As if there aren't at least fourteen states ready to criminalize abortion the minute they get the go-ahead. As if there aren't already more than 300 restrictions on abortion already on the books! At one time Gore's ferocity as a debater was going to be his decisive strength. It may have backfired with the feel-good nincompoop Bush, but Gore could always try getting down off his high horse and asking Ralph how he would feel about letting other freedoms lose their constitutional protection. Should fifty state legislatures decide every year how much freedom of speech Ralph Nader is going to have?
It's perfectly fair to attack Nader. It's even fair to attack him in nasty, personal ways, the way Naderites attack Gore--by, for example, spreading the right-wing disinformation that Gore said he invented the Internet and was the model for Love Story. But it's absurd and kind of pathetic for Toby Moffett and the "Nader's Raiders for Gore" to wring their hands and beg Nader to step aside for the good of the country--it would make more sense to beg Gore to address the concerns of Nader voters. It would even make more sense for them to address--since Gore isn't doing the job--the fence-sitters who are moving toward Bush: pro-choice women, for instance, who think Bush isn't serious about working to limit abortion (an illusion not shared by the Christian Coalition, one might add), and union men who are having trouble choosing between their guns and their job protection.
According to a group of seven academic political forecasters, Gore is supposed to win because the man and the campaign and the issues are unimportant: Whether the incumbent party stays in the White House all depends on the state of the economy, both actual and perceived. This alone can explain the outcome of every election since 1948. If Gore loses despite his tremendous structural advantages, what can you say except he screwed up monumentally? Clinton triangulated against the left, but Gore acted as if the left didn't exist. You can't blame the left if it came back to bite him on the behind.
They thought they'd vote the Democratic slate,
But somehow felt they needed something more.
They finally found a candidate who was
More sanctimonious than Albert Gore.
I want to vote for Bill Clinton for President again, but that not
being possible I had resigned myself to Al Gore. Surely, I thought, he
would defend the Clinton Administration's record of the past eight years,
and voters would recognize it as obviously preferable to the debt and
divisiveness the Republicans had wrought.
Indeed, the only reason to favor Gore over Bill Bradley in the
primaries, which I regrettably did, was that Gore had on-the-job training
in the most productive administration in decades. That's what the vice
President brought to the table, certainly not his deer-in-the headlights
stage presence, and yet he sits dumbfounded for lack of a ready reply
when George W. Bush rails on about the failed opportunities of the
"Hey, buddy," I keep waiting for Gore to say, "I wasn't going to bring
up your daddy's wreckage of the economy but you leave me no choice. Are
Americans better off now than they were eight years ago? You bet they
are. Crime, unemployment and poverty are all down, and the economy is
still on an unprecedented roll. Under Bush senior, the Japanese were
thought to be entrepreneurally invincible, and now it is US know-how
the world seeks to emulate."
Instead of a celebration of what he and the President accomplished
despite reactionary Republican control of the Congress, Gore offers only
the most mealy-mouthed rejoinders when Bush slanders the record of the
Unfortunately, Al Gore has spent most of the election trying to prove
that he is not Bill Clinton. He needn't have bothered. No one could ever
confuse the two. Gore is by temperament, and apparently conviction, the
un-Clinton--it's like comparing a fresh out-of-the-bottle swig of Coke
with a 7-Up gone flat.
The President is a compelling advocate for his vision of progressive
government, so much so that even his lousy ideas, like welfare reform,
have a sizzle of optimism. But in the main, Clinton deserves a great deal
of credit for demonstrating that a concerned activist government also can
balance the books while lifting the US economy from the doldrums.
Whether it is a matter of personal chemistry or absence of genuine
commitment, Gore lacks Clinton's ability to convince us that deep down
he's on our side--whoever we are. Gore has made doing even the obviously
right thing, like saving Social Security and Medicare, seem partisan and
His best moment was that acceptance speech at the Democratic
convention when he sounded the alarm that George W. Bush could actually
do serious harm to this country. But since then his campaign has become
nothing more than an awkward attempt to keep up with Bush at Texas
line-dancing as a form of governance. They move together in a dreary
drumbeat of support for the death penalty and huge military expenditures,
and Gore has even muffled his criticism of Bush on guns and abortion.
Gore has come out of that contest so disoriented that he has even managed
to make Ralph Nader seem like a sexy dancer.
Which is why what could prove to be a critical 4 percent of the electorate,
composed of largely thoughtful and well-intentioned people, are willing
to risk Republican control of the White House. No small risk, given that
right-wing Republicans likely will continue to run Congress, and with
Bush as President, the third branch of government--the federal judiciary
from the Supreme Court on down--will be shaped in the image of Jesse
Helms. There is no reason to expect otherwise from a Bush presidency,
since he has warned us that Clarence Thomas and Anthony Scalia, two of
the most reactionary judges in the history of the Court, are his judicial
Nader has been less than honest in tarring the major parties with the
same brush. He surely must know that the Democrats are better, far
better, at protecting consumers and the environment, supporting labor,
including raising the minimum wage, and advancing the rights of women,
minorities and gays.
However, there is an argument for having Nader in the race and even
for telling pollsters that you intend to vote for the man. It's to force
Gore to distinguish himself from the Bush campaign in order to win back
those Nader votes.
Yet, on Election Day, Gore, for all his faults, still deserves the
votes of those who care about the frightening damage that a Republican
sweep of the White House and Congress portends for this country.
Behind that smug Bush smile lies the calculations of Trent Lott and
the heart of Jesse Helms. There even might be room for the ghost of Newt
Gingrich in a Bush Cabinet. It's Halloween time.
Bernie Sanders is right. Ralph Nader is "one of the heroes of contemporary American society." How sad, therefore, that he is helping to undo so much of his life's work in a misguided fit of political pique and ideological purity. The Nation's election editorial is wrong in its recommendation of "strategic voting" in this election. Ralph Nader's campaign does not deserve a single progressive vote on November 7. Not one.
To listen to the Naderites--many of whom I admire--you might believe they were constructing a diverse, representative progressive movement with the possibility of one day replacing the Democrats. How odd it is to note, therefore, that this nascent leftist movement has virtually no support among African-Americans, Latinos or Asian-Americans. It has no support among organized feminist groups, organized gay rights groups or mainstream environmental groups. To top it all off, it has no support in the national union movement. So Nader and company are building a nonblack, non-Latino, non-Asian, nonfeminist, nonenvironmentalist, nongay, non-working people's left: Now that really would be quite an achievement.
Although Nader has said that he would not consciously work to elect Bush over Gore, "he is not keeping his pledges," according to his onetime comrades in Nader's Raiders for Gore. Nader has been campaigning aggressively in Florida, Minnesota, Michigan, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin. If Gore loses even a few of those states, then Hello, President Bush. And if Bush does win, then Goodbye to so much of what Nader and his followers profess to cherish. Goodbye, for instance, to affirmative action, abortion rights, gun control, campaign finance reform, minimum-wage raises, environmental protection, consumer protection, class-action lawsuits, worker-safety legislation and just about everything else the government can do to help the neediest and most vulnerable among us.
These are not the scare tactics of the "frightened liberals" that Nader and his fellow political puritans hold in such profound contempt. This is the truth. Nader supporters argue that his candidacy is likely to help elect a Democratic Congress. Oh really? In the first place, careful studies have never been able to identify the so-called silent progressive majority--the Nader voters who otherwise wouldn't make it to the polls but who once there would vote for lower-level Democrats--upon which this strategy rests. And wait a minute: I thought the Democrats weren't worth saving, anyway. The far more likely outcome of Nader's Pied Piper run is the election of a dimwitted right-wing President with Trent Lott, Jesse Helms, Tom DeLay and Dick Armey inaugurating an era of conservative reaction the likes of which Newt Gingrich could scarcely have imagined.
And for what? A party that polls single digits in national elections? Who needs it? While it has been salutary to see Nader speak some occasional truth to power on television, given the winner-take-all structure of national and local elections the US political system has no role for third parties other than that of a spoiler. Excluding the lunatic Reform Party, only one third party in the twentieth century, the Socialists, ran in more than two consecutive presidential campaigns. The Socialists are also alone in having won more votes in a second election than in their first. Yet as the democratic socialist founder of In These Times, James Weinstein, points out, "Even at the height of their influence they had no potential of becoming a major presence in Congress, much less of electing a president."
Nader's candidacy, moreover, manifests some of the least attractive aspects of the sectarian left. It demonstrates the old faux-revolutionary tendency to focus fire on one's natural allies on the center-left rather than one's genuine enemies on the right. Some Naderites have also displayed a streak of leftist McCarthyism in their attacks on those progressives who question their strategy of abandoning the Democratic Party to the corporations. And Nader has demonstrated extreme carelessness with his words in this campaign, calling the choice between Gore and Bush a choice between Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Given the obvious differences between the two parties (see "Bush or Gore: Does It Matter?" October 16), this posturing comes at considerable cost to the man's once unquestionable reputation for intellectual honesty and political integrity.
You don't have to like or admire Al Gore to vote for him. I sure don't. But elections are not therapy. Nor, as philosopher John Dewey reminds us, are they useful occasions for movement-building. If you have to start building your movement by the time Election Day comes around, it's already too late. Given the weakness of the left in America today, our elections are by definition a choice of the lesser evil. The mistake Naderites make is in their refusal to distinguish between those evils.
There is the Clinton/Gore evil where, yes, corporate power runs rampant and inequality is increasing, but minorities, gays, women and low-wage workers have made more economic (and in some cases, social) progress than at any time in nearly four decades. Then there is the Bush/Lott/DeLay evil where these same people will be pushed back to their traditional places, as the Republican Party revives its war against Social Security, progressive taxation, public education and the few remaining sources of democratic solidarity in America.
Had Nader taken a page from the Christian Coalition and challenged Gore and the party leadership in the primary process, he might have forced its center of gravity leftward in response to the organized populist anger we saw on display in Seattle last year. Indeed, I would have been happy to vote for him. A steady, patient challenge to the party's corporate domination at the grassroots and presidential level is just what both the party and its progressives need to build the kind of machine that can win tangible victories down the road. Instead, Nader has chosen to ape Pat Buchanan, leading his followers on a costly and quixotic march to nowhere. Too bad the poor and the powerless will be--as usual--the ones to pay.
In Chicago, in mid-October, I did a radio show with the Bill Buckley-ish Milt Rosenberg of WGN, a big station. Rosenberg said that because of the fairness doctrine our discussion of Al Gore: A User's Manual, written by Jeffrey St. Clair and myself, could not be broadcast until after the election. So we spent an hour bathing ourselves alternately in the dawn light of the impending Bush and Gore administrations.
It's Bush in the White House! And yes, he's there in part because of the Nader vote. The big liberal public-interest organizations, green groups, NOW, begin to roll out their mass mailings, delightedly fundraising against a backdrop of predicted catastrophe: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge pincushioned with test drillings, polar bear cubs licking at the gobs of crude oil on their fur. With any luck Bush will nominate some James Watt look-alike for the Interior Department. Watt got nothing done, but he sure scared up a lot of money for green groups.
Ralph Nader holds an unapologetic postelection superrally. It's packed to the rooftop with exultant young people, who will carry the memory of the Nader/Green drive of 2000 as their transformative political moment. He reminds the Democrats of why they lost. They offered no appealing reasons for enough progressives to vote for them. He points out that throughout American history there have been moments of renewal, of creative destruction and then refreshment of the political process. Nader sketches out the line of march for the next four years.
It's Gore by a nose! Enough progressives who had been tilting toward Nader and the Greens were scared back into the fold those last weeks. Four more years of you-know-what.
"A vote for Nader is a vote for Bush." How quickly the Gore liberals adopted a totalitarian mindset, sounding like Soviet commissars back in the old days, who would urge the voters toward a 98 percent turnout for the Communist candidate, arguing that any deviation from absolute loyalty would "objectively" play into the hands of the imperialists.
A vote for Nader was first and foremost a vote for Nader. And since the programs of the Democratic and Republican candidates are pretty much the same on issues ranging from corporate welfare to Wall Street to the war on drugs to crime to military spending and the war in Colombia, a vote for Gore was actually a vote for Bush, and a vote for Bush a vote for Gore. You're getting them both.
Those waning days of the campaign there was a desperation to the alarums of the Gore people about Nader. For one thing, they knew that the Nader superrallies in New York, across the upper Midwest and in the Northwest had a hugely energizing effect on young people. Nothing like it since Jesse Jackson's populist bid for the nomination back in 1988. Back at that time Jackson folded in behind the Democratic ticket and rolled up his Rainbow, leaving hundreds of thousands of supporters with nowhere to go and nothing to do. It was one of the most despicable acts of self-interested betrayal of people's hopes in living memory. If Jackson had led the Rainbow out of the Democratic Party back then, it would have been a far better base for a third party than what the Greens have to offer.
The enthusiasms of these young activists weren't about to be quelled by lectures from Gloria Steinem or Barney Frank or Jesse Jackson Jr. about the need to take the mature view and root for Gore/Lieberman. For one thing, they watched the debates. Did they take from those labored encounters any nourishment from Gore on issues that they have an appetite for, like trade or sweatshop labor or the drug war or the growing divide between rich and poor?
Gore liberals such as Steinem, Patricia Ireland of NOW and Carl Pope of the Sierra Club have been trading in false currency for so long that they don't realize that as shills for the Democratic Party their credit was used up long, long ago.
Listen to Ellen Johnson, an organizer for the Arizona Greens, who teaches at Arizona State in Tempe. "Since the onset of the Clinton presidency NOW's once-stalwart support of many women's rights issues has eroded. While reproductive rights are important, so is quality childcare, a living wage, healthcare and eradication of environmental toxins. Although Clinton/Gore promised to address these issues in '92 and '96, no acceptable plans for improvement have been implemented. Why is NOW so willing to give Gore another chance? Oh yeah, I forgot, for abortion rights. What is Roe v. Wade worth to you, NOW? If it's the wholesale sellout of a constituency you once pledged to serve, then you are on the right track."
What the fall campaign did most of all was to show up the bankruptcy of people like Ireland and Pope--the people who soft-shoed for Clinton and Gore for eight years. The sort of people, come right down to it, who are now trying to fire Pacifica's Amy Goodman. Yes, Mary Frances Berry, consultant to the Pacifica board, was a prominent presence at an October 24 gig organized by People for the American Way, presided over by Bill Clinton, and designed to scare progressives back to Gore.
Of course they want to fire Amy Goodman! She puts on the best show on public radio, doesn't she? The liberals who run Pacifica would much rather have manageable mediocrity than Democracy Now! There's nothing so irksome as success not achieved on their terms, under their rules and their rubrics. Amy has edge. She doesn't take "guidance." She's a loose cannon. She brought Ralph Nader onto the floor of the Republican convention in Philadelphia. She's not Tweety Bird or Terry Gross. So she has to go!
How is the Pacifica directorate trying to dump the most popular voice on the network? Easy. Choke the woman with bureaucracy. Demand that she file broadcasting flight plans a week ahead. Insist that she get prior approval for all her speaking gigs. Put it about that Pacifica needs "new voices," a bigger share of the yuppo audience. Murmur not so softly that Amy is old hat, is not really and truly part of the big Pacifica Picture.
It's a control thing. There's nothing on this earth liberals hate more than radicals straying outside the reservation. Let's stray. Onward!
Show-off argumentation or dime-store vision? It's too close to call.
The plane crash that took the life of Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan on October 16 appears to have been a disaster for the Democrats, not only in the Show Me state but nationally. "It means we lose any chance of winning the Senate," laments Russell Hemenway, who runs the National Committee for an Effective Congress (NCEC), the nation's oldest and most effective liberal PAC. Here's why:
Carnahan was running against GOP Senator John Ashcroft, one of the four Republican incumbents rated as highly vulnerable (the others: Minnesota's Rod Grams, Delaware's Bill Roth and Washington's Slade Gorton). The NCEC expects Democratic losses in Virginia--incumbent Chuck Robb--and Nevada, which has an open Democratic seat. Even if the Democrats hold on to their open seats in New Jersey (a lock), New York and Nebraska (less certain) and pick up the open GOP seat in Florida, without Carnahan that means "we lose two and pick up four, max," Hemenway says. Should Joe Lieberman be elevated to the vice presidency, Connecticut's Republican governor would fill his vacancy--probably with popular GOP moderate Congressman Chris Shays, who'll be hard to dislodge--further reducing the chances of a Democratic majority.
Carnahan was, by all accounts, a pretty straight shooter as politicians go. A Southern Baptist from a small rural town, he was a relentlessly driven officeseeker as he climbed the greasy pole to the Statehouse but not overly gluttonous of publicity once in power, an effective administrator and a cautious centrist--but with flashes of heart. He picked his fights carefully, vetoing a ban on "partial birth" abortions (a veto that the Democratic-controlled legislature, including many Dixiecrats, overrode) and leading a successful campaign to defeat an NRA-backed referendum to permit the carrying of concealed handguns. But Carnahan walked away from this year's Fair Elections referendum to provide 100 percent public funding on the Maine model (while raking in nearly as much soft money for his Senate campaign as Ashcroft). And he refused to meet with representatives of the gay community for most of his tenure as governor.
Ashcroft, on the other hand, is a hard-core cultural and political conservative from Springfield, in the southwestern part of the state (known as the Buckle of the Bible Belt). His father was president of Evangel University there, run by the Assemblies of God, a pentecostal sect known as "holy rollers" for their practice of writhing on the floor while speaking in tongues. A popular governor before becoming senator, Ashcroft was so straitlaced that he banned liquor and dancing from the Statehouse. In 1997 Ashcroft tried to parlay his religiosity into a presidential candidacy, positioning himself as the candidate of the religious right. "He really damaged himself here, because in running for President, he showed just how extremist he really is," says Grant Williams of the state's Service Employees International Union. In a state with 350,000 union members and a rich labor history, Ashcroft has a viciously antilabor record: As governor he tried to pass a right-to-work referendum, and as senator he sponsored a bill that would have gutted the Fair Labor Standards Act by permitting employers to work their wage slaves sixty hours a week with no overtime pay. The darling of business lobbies, Ashcroft has been a master of the cash-for-votes trade: For example, he sponsored legislation to extend for five years the patent on the anti-allergy drug Claritin--a measure worth billions in profits to its maker, Schering-Plough--and two months later pocketed a $50,000 campaign contribution from the company, which earned him a tart St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial branding him "the Senator from Claritin." All this, plus Carnahan's popularity as governor, had made the Senate race a dead heat.
But with Ashcroft now unopposed by a live candidate (it's too late to get Carnahan's name off the ballot), Democrats are scared to death about turnout. To counter the GOP's expected majorities in rural Missouri, especially in the southwest, they'd been counting not only on energized union voters but on a better-than-usual black vote. Ashcroft is perceived, as a leading black state legislator, Rita Days, puts it, "as a racist." Ashcroft led the Senate fight against confirmation for a federal judgeship of Ronnie White, the first African-American member of the state's Supreme Court. In his abortive presidential campaign Ashcroft gave an interview to the neo-Confederate magazine Southern Partisan, praising "Southern patriots" like Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson and adding, "We've all got to stand up and speak in [defense of their memories] or else we'll be taught that these people were giving their lives, subscribing their sacred fortunes and their honor to some perverted agenda." Last May, he gave the commencement address at and received an honorary degree from Bob Jones University.
But with no possibility of defeating Ashcroft, there's not much to motivate an expanded black turnout. The Democrats have a white-bread ticket for other statewide offices, headed by gubernatorial candidate Bob Holden, the state treasurer, a centrist with a charisma bypass and little visibility in the black community.
Even before Carnahan's death, senior Democrats were describing the party's get-out-the-vote drive as "OK, but not great." Toby Paone, a veteran political op who now works for the state's NEA, explains: "We've been in power eight years--we've gotten too comfortable, there's some apathy. And don't forget that Carnahan had virtually no race four years ago." The liberal former mayor of St. Louis, Vince Schoemehl, says, "Carnahan was the Democrats' firewall--he was going to run 3-4 points ahead of Gore, and Democrats do better downticket when people start splitting their ticket at the top." With Carnahan out, the Democrats could even lose one or both houses of the state legislature, where their majorities are slim (two in the Senate, seven in the House), endangering the party's control over future redistricting.
Moreover, says a veteran Democratic politician, "here the party apparatus is controlled by the governor--they're all Carnahan's people. Now they've lost their leader, they're in mourning, discombobulated." Magnifying this body blow to the party's campaign just three weeks before the election was Gore's aggressive performance in the St. Louis presidential debate. Even though Carnahan and Ashcroft despised each other, in their one televised debate just one day before the plane crash they were very gentlemanly. "I just don't think Gore's debate performance played well at all with Missourians," opines State Representative Steve McKluckie, a leader of the legislature's progressive caucus.
Carnahan was the motor driving the Democrats' Missouri campaign. With that motor now silenced, Gore, too, has much to worry about. And Missouri has voted for the winner in every presidential election this century save one.
Impeachment trials have notably lacked drama or even importance. Often, they have been an anticlimax to the convulsive events that precipitated them. Andrew Johnson's trial extended over several months and was a tepid sideshow to the profound political and legal struggles that marked Reconstruction. The British Parliament considered Warren Hastings's fate sporadically for eight years after he was impeached for his mismanagement of India policies, a subject heatedly debated for decades. The constitutional stakes sometimes appear high, but impeachment is essentially a quasi-legal extension of politics.
The impeachment and trial of William Jefferson Clinton followed form. Here was a proceeding whose remarkable moments seem in retrospect to be Robert Byrd's bombastic oratory, Arlen Specter's idiosyncratic attempt to import Scottish law by rendering a verdict of "Not Proven," Henry Hyde's ongoing fits of pique toward the Senate and misguided media speculations about "concessions" and "compromise" after one of the House managers of the proceeding, Lindsey Graham, lightened up and said "reasonable people can disagree." Most senators even followed a script for their questions, asking ones planted by the lawyers or the leadership. The affair had all the spontaneity of a Pointillist painting.
Jeffrey Toobin's A Vast Conspiracy and Joe Conason and Gene Lyons's The Hunting of the President treat impeachment briefly as a mere coda to earlier stories of alleged presidential wrongdoing. Both books recognize that the interesting and important political story centered on the assault against Clinton, which had gathered momentum after his election in 1992. That story was unscripted and owed more to accident and inadvertence than to design. The President and his wife were accused, among other things, of crooked land deals, suspected insider commodity trading, drug-running and complicity in the murder of a presidential-assistant-cum-alleged-paramour, Vincent Foster. Finally, we had the National Dirty Joke. The Toobin and Conason/Lyons books essentially tell the same story, and tell it rather well.
Peter Baker, a Washington Post reporter, set out to write "an authoritative and straightforward history" of the impeachment and trial. This subject pales by contrast to the earlier story, for it has little drama, mystery or subtlety. Baker is apparently determined to give us everything he accumulated in his reporter's notebook. His details are numbing; we have an abundance of trivia, rumor and anecdote, leaving him (and us) short on analysis and insight. But publishing publicity departments love this stuff. Press releases for the book emphasize the President's request to attorney David Kendall to tell Hillary that "something had obviously gone on" between her husband and Monica Lewinsky. It was the "longest walk" of Kendall's life, but he "laid the foundation" for Clinton to tell his wife. Certainly Clinton's modus operandi was nothing new or startling.
Typically, such books rest upon the usual unnamed sources. "I wish I could name them all," Baker writes. But it is not difficult to dope out his sources, and their obvious, self-fulfilling purposes. Representative Asa Hutchinson, one of the House managers, talked with Baker at length. Baker apparently found him the most interesting of the prosecutors (Hutchinson could mute his sanctimoniousness and stick to the legal issues), or at least the one most willing to speak. Baker can tell you at length what Hutchinson was thinking and what motivated him. Needless to say, Hutchinson comes off better than his colleagues.
Baker seems to have chronicled the recollections of every participant and weighted them equally. We hear about the origins of Joe Lieberman's famous speech, from its inception on the laptop to the incremental additions made before delivery. We are reminded of that very forgettable, very carefully planted rumor that Bob Woodward would report a second Clinton affair, with another intern. Remember Larry King panting over that one?
We learn that Senator Strom Thurmond flirted like a silly old man with the President's female lawyers. Baker finds a few themes and uses them repeatedly. Thus, the Democrats would consistently expose Republican partisanship and "win by losing." Then we had the "don't irritate Byrd" strategy, meaning that the Democrats decided to pander to their silly old man.
Baker even reveals how Washington really works. At one point, Representative Robert Livingston, on the verge of gaining the speakership, apparently decided to scuttle the case, but his chief aide--an unsung Beltway hero--persuaded him that Tom DeLay's secret room of evidence would prove the President was a rapist. "So what you're saying," Livingston said to the aide, "is we have to impeach the bastard?" Comes the breathless answer from the aide, eager to be immortalized: "Yes, I'm saying we have to impeach the bastard." Finally, Baker performs a useful service by identifying Lisa Myers of NBC as a "key player." And here we thought she was a working journalist.
Baker implicitly acknowledges the widely held notion that Tom DeLay steamrollered the House impeachment process. DeLay made mincemeat out of Peter King, the New York conservative who tried to form a bloc of Republicans opposed to impeachment. Finally, despairing, King informed Clinton, "There are people in my party who just hate you." Livingston's staff described DeLay as "the godfather." He made Livingston, he threatened him and he unmade him. But Baker leaves DeLay in the shadows, with no explanation of the sources of his power or how he held the House in his sway.
David Schippers, chief investigative counsel for the impeachment inquiry, Chicago Democrat (of a sort) and Hyde's fellow Knight of the Catholic Church's Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher, has given us a book as comical and over the top as himself. Remember: This is the man who called up fifteen generations of fighting Americans from their graves to judge the House Judiciary Committee's action. His ready audience, which has shot the book to near the top of the bestseller list, gets plenty of red meat. Special prosecutor Kenneth Starr's report is treated as gospel; never mind that Starr acknowledged that without Monica Lewinsky's falling into his lap, he had no other case against the President.
Schippers's thesis is simple, and in part quite right: The Senate Republicans had no intention of seriously trying the case and sold out their House counterparts. Unfortunately, he explains this with scathing denunciations of "compromise" and "bipartisanship," when in fact a significant number of Senate Republicans simply did not believe that Schippers's case amounted to high crimes and misdemeanors, or that the President deserved to be thrown out of office.
The Senate treated the House charges with disdain, often bordering on contempt, much to the managers' dismay and scorn. The senators even refused to provide partisan cover for the managers when they failed to mount a majority in favor of either of the two articles of impeachment. Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, whose Appropriations Committee chairmanship gave him enormous clout and who is no stranger to partisan battles, offered the most revealing insight into senatorial minds. Stevens voted to acquit Clinton on the perjury charge but voted him guilty on the obstruction count--the latter a mere "courtesy" to the managers. Stevens had no illusions. The world remained a dangerous place, and he forcefully said he would not vote to remove the President if he knew his vote would be decisive to the outcome. With remarkable candor, he 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; this trial simply was not serious.
Stevens had hinted at this from the outset, infuriating Schippers. Yet Schippers was, inadvertently, right about bipartisanship. Current wisdom has it that the Clinton trial was a bitter, partisan affair and, as such, was doomed to failure. But just as bipartisanship worked to bring down Richard Nixon a quarter-century earlier, it may well have tarred and discredited Clinton's accusers. The Senate certainly had its share of Clinton-haters. Trent Lott in 1974 had rejected impeachment as unthinkable; he had no trouble, however, applying it to Clinton. The usual suspects--Phil Gramm, Robert Bennett, Rick Santorum et al.--followed in lockstep. But Republican defections denied the impeachers any semblance of respectability and gave Clinton some measure of satisfaction.
There was no chance of removing the President once he had the support of his fellow Democrats. At that point, Republicans faced a choice: They could maintain party orthodoxy and vote for Clinton's removal, or they could freely vote to hold the bar high enough to reject his removal from office. Enough Republicans were persuaded that the President did not merit extreme sanction--and they exposed the whole affair as a meaningless, vindictive exercise.
Impeachment and removal belonged, then, to the Bob Barr set within the Republican Party. Most Republicans preferred resignation; impeachment proved to be a grasping, last-ditch effort to humiliate Clinton. Resignation would not only satisfy the hatred for him but provide payback for the Nixon affair a quarter-century earlier. When Livingston dramatically announced his own resignation (after it was publicly revealed that he'd also had an affair), he called upon the President to do the same. "Sir, you have done great damage to this nation.... I say that you have the power to terminate that damage and heal the wounds that you have created. You, sir, may resign from your post," Livingston pleaded.
Resignation had seemed a viable possibility months earlier, in the immediate wake of the Lewinsky revelations. Clinton's real moment of danger came when Democrats, many of whom dislike him, briefly flirted with the idea of abandoning him. But that effort ended for several reasons, not the least of which turned out to be polls showing public apathy or outright support for Clinton. Democrats decided to resist Republican attempts to force out the President, by resignation or later by impeachment. Even as the Senate went through the last-minute ritual of its vote, Phil Gramm said that a leader with honor "would fall on your own sword." But Gramm had (for him) a startling revelation: Richard Nixon had a sense of shame; Clinton had the hide of an elephant.
For Tom DeLay and his cohorts, who had known removal was unlikely but turned to impeachment to embarrass the President and tarnish his legacy, irony abounds. Not for the first or last time did Republicans underestimate Clinton; and not for the last time was he so blessed by his enemies. Prosperity and other Democrats proved indispensable allies.
There are no heroes in this tale, no redeeming moral or social virtue to offer in rendering American history. It is a smarmy story of petty politics, propelled by out-of-control media coverage. The constant theme is that the perpetrators remained wholly disconnected from that amorphous thing we call "the people." We are neither puritans nor prudes--probably the real subject here was infidelity, and that is a subject too many have had to contend with firsthand, or have preferred not to. In the end, the American people saved Bill Clinton--almost in spite of him.
After Andrew Johnson's impeachment trial, regret quickly took hold and impeachment was discredited for more than a century. Watergate and Nixon revived it in 1974. Now, our choices seem plain. Either impeachment will be used readily as a partisan weapon or it will become moribund once again. Neither result is healthy for the American constitutional system.
Toobin's A Vast Conspiracy and Conason and Lyons's The Hunting of the President knew the real story lay prior to impeachment.
"The death penalty's very serious business, Leo," Governor Bush condescendingly told a questioner in the third presidential debate. "There've been some tough cases come across my desk. Some of the hardest moments since I've been governor of the State of Texas is to deal with those cases.... But my job is to ask two questions, sir. Is the person guilty of the crime? And did the person have full access to the courts of law? And I can tell you, looking at you right now, in all cases those answers were affirmative."
On camera Leo Anderson, the questioner, didn't seem to buy the governor's oft-repeated assertion, and he certainly wouldn't have if he had been privy to a recently released confidential memorandum on one of the toughest of those cases.
The memo went from Bush's then-general counsel, Alberto Gonzales, to Bush at 10:30 on the morning of April 3, 1997, only hours before David Wayne Spence was to be executed. Although the document was his first detailed look at the case and although the governor was Spence's only hope for a reprieve--the courts and Board of Pardons and Paroles having turned him down--this "very serious business" took Bush, according to his schedule for the day, all of half an hour at most.
I obtained the memo through the Public Information Act, Texas's FOIA. Not surprisingly, the Bush administration vigorously resisted its release. The document that went fleetingly across the governor's desk that morning is seven single-spaced pages, and although it works overtime to be unequivocal, it can't disguise or resolve the "tough questions" concerning Spence's guilt. The memo's author, Stuart Bowen, the deputy counsel charged with investigating the case, uses distortion, omissions, outright lies and an inappropriate adversarial bent to reach what must have been a preordained conclusion to deny a reprieve.
Writing several months after the execution and using the same information Bowen used, Bob Herbert in the New York Times concluded that Spence was "almost certainly innocent" and the case against him a "travesty." Many others, including Alan Berlow in Salon and a team of Chicago Tribune reporters, have agreed. But Bowen had been in the execution business with Bush long enough to know that the governor, preparing for a re-election campaign and in the starting blocks for a run for the presidency, would never go for a reprieve in the Spence case. And certainly not on the day of the execution, with families of the teenage victims of the crime for which Spence was about to die--a triple murder at a lake near Waco in 1982--in a motel in Huntsville ready to scream their heads off if the execution didn't go through. So Bowen did the following in the memorandum:
§ He opened by reciting the "facts" of the case as if he were a prosecutor giving a closing statement to a jury, brushing over developments favorable to Spence's claim that had surfaced in the fifteen years since the crime.
§ He bought the state's illogical theory of the case, that Spence was hired to kill a girl and mistook one of the teens for that girl (even though Spence knew the girl well and, according to testimony, hung out with the teens for hours before the killings), and ameliorates the illogic by dropping a crucial detail (he doesn't mention the testimony about hanging out for hours).
§ He put all the problems with the case under the heading "Publicity." This invidious rubric was intended in part to deprecate a Waco businessman, a conservative Republican, who had tried to get the execution stopped; he came to Bowen a week before the execution and laid out a detailed case for Spence's innocence.
§ He lied. For instance, he said the prosecutor turned over all the evidence in his possession to the defense, although the prosecutor explicitly told him he hadn't. He says the first lead detective on the case, Ramon Salinas, who sat in Bowen's office and told him without qualification that he believed Spence to be innocent, was fired for "incompetence," which is not true.
§ He relegated Spence's claim that he was railroaded by an unscrupulous sheriff's deputy and DA to three sentences in the conclusion, ignored voluminous testimony documenting this frame-up and swept away the allegations as "tertiary issues."
§ He rubber-stamped the courts' judgments (saying in a letter to me that those rulings are "the bottom line"), in effect negating the clemency procedure.
"Yet making decisions is what governors and chief executives do," the governor has written about that clemency procedure. "I try to do so thoroughly, thoughtfully, and fairly. I have assembled a top-quality staff that gets me accurate information and comprehensive briefings. I base my decisions on principles that do not change." Thoroughly? In thirty minutes? As to his top-quality staff and their accurate information, the memo supports the former (they are adept at distortion, etc.) and puts the lie to the latter. And principles? Let's just say they are very different from those of his honorary Illinois campaign chairman, Governor George Ryan, who has halted all executions in his state because he believes the execution of an innocent is truly a nightmare.
With its dissembling and obfuscation, the memorandum makes clear that when he denied Spence a reprieve, George W. Bush and his aides didn't know whether the man was guilty or innocent. A year after Spence's execution, Bush granted clemency to Henry Lee Lucas, the alleged serial killer, because, he says in his book, A Charge to Keep, he didn't know whether Lucas was guilty. But the politics of the Lucas case were different from those of the Spence case, and politics, Leo--unlike the life of David Spence--is very serious business indeed.
NO MIRTH IN THE BALANCE
"Al Gore distills in his single person the disrepair of liberalism in America today, and almost every unalluring feature of the Democratic Party. He did not attain this distinction by accident but by sedulous study from the cradle forward." Thus unambiguously do Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn and frequent collaborator Jeffrey St. Clair stake out the terrain in opening their brief against the Vice President. Political handbook rather than full-blown biography, it effectively paints Gore as a walking sandwich board for Democratic Leadership Council values, tapped for higher office because Bill and Hillary saw in him "a kindred soul in political philosophy, hewing to the pro-corporate, anti-union positions...which together they had founded and nurtured." From his family connections to Occidental Petroleum to his education partly under Martin Peretz (from Peretz's pulpit at Harvard, not The New Republic), Gore's background is shown with no mirth in the balance but his "propensity to boast excessively" demonstrated at every turn. The authors, wearing their hearts on their pens, chronicle Gore's role in fighting against graphic rock lyrics but for NAFTA, his boardroom brand of environmentalism, his evolution from "centrist realism" to (stretcher alert) "pragmatic progressivism." He's "never been a political Boy Scout," they write. On their honor.
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