Clinton Fights to Keep Impeachment Taboo

Hillary Clinton was at her most popular when her husband's dalliance with an intern was publicly revealed.
Hillary Clinton was at her most popular when her husband's dalliance with an intern was publicly revealed. (1998 Photo By Robert Reeder -- The Washington Post)
By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 25, 2007

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has a new commandment for the 2008 presidential field: Thou shalt not mention anything related to the impeachment of her husband.

With a swift response to attacks from a former supporter last week, advisers to the New York Democrat offered a glimpse of their strategy for handling one of the most awkward chapters of her biography. They declared her husband's impeachment in 1998 -- or, more accurately, the embarrassing personal behavior that led to it -- taboo, putting her rivals on notice and all but daring other Democrats to mention the ordeal again.

"In the end, voters will decide what's off-limits, but I can't imagine that the public will reward the politics of personal destruction," senior Clinton adviser Howard Wolfson said Friday, when asked whether the impeachment is fair game for Clinton's opponents. Earlier in the week, Wolfson dismissed references to President Bill Clinton's conduct as "under the belt."

But the reality, of course, is that the impeachment was conducted very much in public.

As Clinton aides spent several days batting down insults made by David Geffen, the Hollywood mogul who raised questions about the former president's personal behavior and praised Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in a provocative interview, the intra-party brawl suggested that the scandal remains something of a tripwire for Clinton.

Although she has spent the past seven years establishing her own identity as a public servant, Clinton has been embracing the more popular aspects of her husband's presidency more widely as she mounts her own campaign, with frequent references to their time together in the White House and their joint legacy.

And as she has invoked the good Bill Clinton, she has risked invoking the bad, several Democratic strategists said.

"She's using him in this campaign, so why can't somebody else use him?" asked a veteran of Democratic presidential politics who is not currently aligned with a candidate but who, like numerous other Democrats, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of angering the Clintons. "She's just made him fair game. He's part of her strategy, so why can't he be part of one of her opponents'?"

The turmoil of the later Clinton years has been a theme of national politics since it occurred: George W. Bush ran in 2000 on a promise to "restore honor and dignity to the Oval Office," while Vice President Al Gore campaigned as a solid family man, distancing himself from the impeachment ordeal.

For the 2008 campaign, it is an automatic subtext of the Obama candidacy. Presenting himself as a relative political newcomer untainted by the warfare that culminated in Clinton's impeachment, Obama in his most recent book, "The Audacity of Hope," described the battles of the 1990s as "the psychodrama of the Baby Boom generation." Without specifically mentioning the Monica Lewinsky scandal in an interview last October, Obama praised Bill Clinton for bridging party divides on certain issues but said the former president was in other ways "trapped by his own biography."

Still, the entire episode had been largely airbrushed from the public Democratic dialogue about the 1990s -- particularly Hillary Clinton's -- until last week.

And Clinton advisers express confidence that any explicit attempt to revive the scandal would instantly backfire, particularly among Democratic primary voters who were outraged by the Republican investigation into her husband when it first occurred. (One Clinton official said donations to her campaign spiked when the Geffen interview was published.) The former first lady's popularity ratings have never been higher than when her husband's affair with a young intern burst into the open and cast her in the role of victim. After a successful Senate bid, she became a colleague, and even an ally, with some of the Republicans who had sought to unseat her husband -- seemingly putting the whole thing to rest.

But the issue has lingered at the edges of the nomination battle, starting with Clinton's quip about her experience with "evil and bad men" at a forum last month in Iowa on her debut trip to the early-caucus state. While many in the audience assumed she was referring to her husband, several Clinton advisers said it was more likely a dig at Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel in the inquiry into Bill Clinton, or Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who as House speaker vigorously pursued impeachment -- in either case still a reference to that rancorous time.

In his interview with Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, Geffen, a onetime Clinton fundraiser, gave voice to fears privately held by some Democrats that Republicans intend to revisit past Clinton issues and try to dig up new ones.

"I don't think anybody believes that in the last six years, all of a sudden Bill Clinton has become a different person," Geffen said. Speaking of Republicans' view of the former first lady, he said: "I think they believe she's the easiest to defeat."

Geffen also attacked Hillary Clinton on other fronts, including her vote to authorize the war in Iraq and subsequent refusal to apologize for it, and he described the Clintons as deceitful.

The Clinton campaign's response was fast and unyielding: Advisers issued a statement demanding that Obama renounce his ties to Geffen, who had just thrown the Illinois senator a $1.3 million fundraiser. When Obama refused, and an Obama spokesman issued a statement pointing out that Geffen had once been the Clintons' guest in the Lincoln Bedroom of the White House, Clinton officials pushed back once more. They accused Obama of failing to live by the principles of positive campaigning he proclaimed. Obama later said he had not authorized his campaign's statement.

Advisers to both Clinton and Obama spent the latter part of last week deconstructing the tussle; each camp publicly argued that its candidate had won the round and that the other side had suffered.

But privately, both sides admitted to "learning lessons" from the brawl. One Clinton adviser said that some outside supporters had expressed misgivings about helping to keep the story alive, even though the senator and her inner circle of aides signed off on a forceful response from the start. On the Obama side, advisers expressed regret for running with a response from which the candidate later distanced himself.

Supporters of both Obama and Clinton indicated that they had little appetite for keeping the debate alive.

Greg Craig, a prominent Washington lawyer who represented Clinton during the Senate's inquiry and is now supporting Obama, declined to echo Geffen's concerns about the Clintons as a reason for his defection.

"You're not going to get me to talk about Hillary in any kind of negative way -- I know that's the topic of the day," Craig said in an interview last week. "I think Obama is uniquely qualified by temperament and experience, as well as by judgment, to lead the country and to bring us together."

Former senator Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), who was minority leader in 1999 when Clinton was acquitted in that chamber, also endorsed Obama, in an announcement last week. But Daschle, too, limited himself to a citation of Obama's credentials in explaining his decision, comparing Obama to the Kennedys of the 1960s and saying in an interview that he hoped to have found a "new leader that will have that kind of effect on young people."

And on the Clinton side, one adviser expressed confidence that "attacking Bill Clinton is a losing strategy," borrowing a phrase from the 1990s. The adviser noted that Clinton remains highly popular among Democratic activists. Close supporter James Carville said that mentioning the impeachment would be tantamount to political suicide. "Nothing is off-limits, but it would be awfully stupid," Carville said. "What do you think attitudes among Democrats are about impeachment and Ken Starr? This is not a Washington dinner party here. This is an election, a nominating process, among Democrats."

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