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The coronation of Colin Powell will probably not be interrupted by any of the specific questions about his mediocre and sometimes sinister past that were so well phrased by David Corn ["Questions for Powell," January 8/15]. The political correctness of the nomination, in both its "rainbow" and "bipartisan" aspects, will see to that. Powell has often defined himself as "a fiscal conservative and a social liberal," which also happens to be the core identity of the Washington press corps. Set against this, what is the odd war crime, or cover-up of same, or deception of a gullible Congress? Time to move on.

Bill Clinton is moving to install Terry McAuliffe as the head of the DNC, a cynical move in this day of pay-to-play politics.

Our drug laws, like those concerning voting, reveal bias and backward thinking.

At the close of its session, Congress considered two bills addressing classified information. One had been pending for more than a year, had more than a hundred co-sponsors, was the subject of two lengthy hearings and received virtually unanimous approval in amended form from the House Judiciary Committee. The other was quietly attached to an intelligence authorization bill and was never the subject of public hearings. But secrecy has a way of trumping democracy, and the latter, which one member of Congress accurately termed an "official secrets act," passed, while the former, which would have restricted government reliance on classified evidence in immigration proceedings, died on the floor. At press time it was unclear whether Clinton would sign or veto the secrecy bill.

The Intelligence Authorization Act would make it a felony for government officials to disclose any "properly classified" information. That is eminently reasonable. By law, information may be classified only if its release would threaten national security, and officials with security clearances should not be allowed to abuse that authority by releasing information that imperils the nation.

But in practice, information is often classified that has no real potential for undermining national security, as is routinely demonstrated when leaks are made public without the sky falling. Because the entire process is secret, there is no effective check on classification decisions. The Clinton Administration--which has actually been more sensitive to the problem of overclassification than many of its predecessors--created more than 8 million new secrets in 1999 alone. And once a secret is classified, it is often decades before it is declassified, if ever.

Examples abound of improperly classified information. The most notorious is the Pentagon Papers. Erwin Griswold, Solicitor General under President Nixon, who argued the Pentagon Papers case for the government, later admitted that he had not "seen any trace of a threat to the national security" from their publication. His extensive experience with classified information taught him that "there is massive overclassification and that the principal concern of the classifiers is not with national security, but rather with governmental embarrassment of one sort or another."

The new criminal penalties will only exacerbate the problem. Under prior law, government officials could lose their security clearances and jobs for disclosing classified material, but Congress had always reserved criminal penalties for leaks of the most sensitive sort--national defense information, the names of spies and the like. The new law makes it a crime to disclose the most mundane classified information, thereby greatly increasing the incentives to classify for the wrong reasons, since the criminal sanction will silence potential whistleblowers.

The bill that did not pass, the Secret Evidence Repeal Act, would simply have required immigration officials to meet the same standards of fairness in using classified information in immigration proceedings that government officials must satisfy in criminal cases. Under current practice, immigration officials assert the authority to lock up and deport immigrants on the basis of classified evidence, presented behind closed doors to an immigration judge, without any disclosure to the immigrant or his lawyers. The Secret Evidence Repeal Act would have required the government to disclose a summary of the evidence, which would provide the immigrant with "substantially the same ability to make his defense" as would the classified evidence itself.

Here, too, one of the principal problems is overclassification. FBI officials routinely classify all information gathered during a "counterterrorism" investigation, including even routine newspaper clippings. When the FBI fails to come up with evidence to support a criminal charge, it often asks the INS to seek deportation, turning over the classified results of its counterterrorism investigation. The INS then presents that evidence behind closed doors in immigration proceedings. When the government's actions are vigorously challenged, however, it virtually always finds itself able to disclose much of the evidence. And in many of those cases, what is disclosed is far more often simply embarrassing to the government than related to national security.

Secrecy is anathema to the adversarial process and a healthy democracy. In courtrooms it thwarts the search for truth. And in the public arena secrecy allows government officials to avoid public scrutiny. In both areas secrecy often leads to sloppy thinking and disastrous results. At the same time, secrecy breeds skepticism and paranoia among government critics. As Lord Acton said, "Everything secret degenerates, even the administration of justice; nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity."

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.

As he travels around the country, musing aloud on his hopes for the future, Bill Clinton inspires an unintended melancholy about his presidency.

Although he endured great hardship, Bill Clinton comes out of the Oval Office smelling like roses.

Residents of Skaneateles, New York, complained to visiting reporters about the Clintons' decision to make themselves relatively scarce on their recent vacation.

Amanda Elk, Rachel Margolis and David Schaenman provided research assistance. This article was supported in part by a Goldsmith Research Award from Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy and the Fund for Investigative Journalism in Washington, DC.

Blogs

Have the media grown up half as much as Monica Lewinsky?

May 12, 2014

Everybody loves the former president. But he was no De Blasio Democrat.

January 2, 2014

Twitter messages are bubbling up to the President.

September 10, 2012

Clinton may be explainer-in-chief, but he left out the gaping hole welfare reform has made in the safety net.

September 6, 2012

Republicans did not want to mention their former president in Tampa. But in Charlotte Democrats followed their former president’s lead. And it could take them all the way in November.

September 5, 2012

The president returned to the battleground state of Wisconsin and gave a well-received speech. But he avoided hot-button labor issues and the trade and industrial policies that are needed to really renew manufacturing.

February 16, 2012

SNAP—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—is one of the strongest threads in our increasingly tattered safety net. But Gingrich started taking whacks at the program in 1995, and now his House Republican descendants are doing the same.

May 18, 2011

For progressive Democrats, the impending death of the Democratic Leadership Council is long overdue.

February 8, 2011

Did Bill Clinton's vigorous campaigning for Blanche Lincoln undermine his stance on climate change?

June 14, 2010

 Bush uses Clinton as Kleenex.

March 24, 2010