Should such a president remain?
Editor's Note: This piece originally appeared on Dec. 11, 1998.
If you want to know why the holiday season is shadowed by controversy over impeachment, look back to last Jan. 30, nine days after the Monica Lewinsky story broke. On that date, my Washington Post colleague John F. Harris reported that President Clinton and his advisers were encouraged by polls showing "the public's initial shock . . . has subsided sufficiently that they could pursue a policy of withholding information about Clinton's relationship with the former White House intern indefinitely." They adopted what one adviser called a " hunker-down strategy' in which Clinton explains nothing publicly as long as he is under legal investigation for obstruction of justice."
More than 10 months later, the stonewalling strategy remains intact, with the president still refusing to admit he lied to a federal judge in his deposition in the Paula Jones case and repeated the lies before a federal grand jury.
He persists in his obduracy for a reason as selfish as his reckless escapade with the compliant Monica. The country desperately wants this mess resolved, but Clinton will not come clean because he fears he might face charges of perjury and obstruction of justice once he leaves office.
Now the strategy of endless delays has lost whatever rationale it might have had. If you believe the five former federal prosecutors the White House recruited to testify Wednesday to the House Judiciary Committee, the perjury charges against Clinton are, as one said, "so doubtful and weak" they would never stand up in court. So why continue the obfuscation?
And yet it goes on. In the final days of Judiciary Committee hearings, the president's lawyer Charles Ruff made the best case possible for him, evenwhile conceding that "reasonable people" might conclude he had lied to save his own skin. That concession came only after one of his witnesses, Princeton Prof. Sean Wilentz, had the arrogance to tell committee members that those who voted for impeachment would go down in history either as "zealots and fanatics" or be judged guilty of "cravenness."
Other defense witnesses tried with more success to argue that the allegations against Clinton are not nearly as serious as those that led to the recommended impeachment of Richard Nixon, and are not so consequential as to merit the disruption of government a Senate trial might entail.
The first point is irrefutable -- but irrelevant. The House is not being asked to judge whether Nixon or Clinton is the worse miscreant but simply whether Clinton's actions in themselves merit impeachment. In considering that question, legitimate concerns about the cost to the country of a Senate trial must be weighed against the continuing damage of keeping a disgraced president in office.
This is a president described by his own White House counsel as a man who "betrayed the trust placed in him not only by his loved ones but by the American people," a president who, the Judiciary Democrats said in their proffered censure resolution, has "violated the trust of the American people, lessened their esteem for the office of President and dishonored the office which they have entrusted to him."
Should such a president remain? Can such a president govern effectively?
Already he has squandered a full year of his term. His job approval rating is high, reflecting a healthy economy, but most voters say they do not trust him -- and neither do other politicians after watching him use his Cabinet and staff to perpetuate his lies. He was unpersuasive in negotiations on the tobacco and health care bills. And when Republicans
offered to help him regain the vital trade negotiation authority all other recent presidents have enjoyed, he spurned them, because he did not want to risk alienating Democrats who might save him from impeachment.
Whatever the polls say, these defeats -- or abdications of leadership -- all speak of a crippled presidency.
Two more years of a neutered chief executive, whose promises are not trusted on Capitol Hill and whose threats are not heeded by the Saddam Husseins of this world, is a high price to pay for avoiding a Senate trial.
When Richard Nixon confronted a bill of impeachment reported from the Judiciary Committee, he resigned. It will be said that he faced the likelihood of conviction in the Senate, while Clinton does not. But at some point, Clinton must ask himself whether he should cling to office, disgraced and enfeebled, or step aside for the man he clearly believes is well qualified to be his successor, Vice President Gore.
If his answer to resignation is no, then the next months of turmoil -- like the 10 months past -- will be on his conscience.