Campaigning for His Wife, Shadowed by Past Battles
Friday, January 18, 2008; Page A01
The question was about a campaign polling memo in 2008, but somehow the answer drifted back to the political wars of 1998. Bill Clinton was holding forth to a group of college students in New Hampshire too young to remember much about the investigations and battles of his presidency. But Clinton remembered.
"Ken Starr spent $70 million and indicted innocent people to find out that I wouldn't take a nickel to see the cow jump over the moon," he told the students last week, his eyes narrowing and his finger jabbing the air. At another point, he complained that the investigations during his White House days virtually bankrupted him: "The Republicans were so mean to me when I was president that I was poorer when I left than when I got there."
Ten years ago Monday, the story of Clinton's relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky and the perjury investigation that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr had initiated as a result of it broke in the media, and the former president's anger over that time can still seem close to the surface.
As Clinton travels the country campaigning for his wife with characteristic intensity, he is fighting not only to promote Hillary Rodham Clinton's candidacy but also to set the record straight on the two terms he spent in the White House. And if some cast the Democratic nomination battle as a test of whether the party wants to turn the page on the Clinton years, then he is determined to win the referendum.
Friends describe a man who has made peace with the past since leaving the Oval Office, but with his wife's campaign now on the line, Clinton's frustration seems to be boiling over. He has likened her Democratic rivals to Republican "Swift boat" attackers and castigated Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) for making up a "fairy tale" about Obama's war position. Just this week he berated a television reporter who asked about a dispute over Nevada caucus rules.
"What he perceives is a lack of fairness -- equal scrutiny, equal accountability," said the Rev. Carolyn Staley, a longtime friend from Arkansas. "While their lives have been an open book for all these years they've been in public service, other candidates have not been subject to that sort of scrutiny."
Few know more about the harsh scrutiny of Washington than Bill Clinton. He spent much of his presidency fending off investigations by special prosecutors, congressional committees and news organizations. His marital indiscretions were excavated by tabloids and depositions. And then, on Jan. 21, 1998, came news that Starr was investigating whether he obstructed justice to cover up an affair with Lewinsky, a former White House intern.
The next 13 months were absorbed by the battle to save his presidency as Clinton tried to mislead and maneuver his way out of trouble and House Republicans impeached him on a party-line vote. Clinton won acquittal in the Senate, but a federal judge later found him in contempt of court for not telling the truth under oath. He eventually admitted giving false testimony about his relationship with Lewinsky, surrendered his law license and paid about $1 million in fines and settlement costs.
Hillary Clinton's campaign has managed to avoid much discussion of these episodes over the past year, and her Democratic rivals have brought them up only obliquely, saying, as Obama has, that they do not want to return to the political battles of the 1990s. Advisers to the senator from New York are acutely aware of Monday's anniversary, coming at the height of the primary season, and hope it will pass with little notice. Some of them cringed last week when her husband recalled the scandal-ridden times at the same event where he made his "fairy tale" comment.
Friends and associates said the former president does not dwell on the old battles. If anything, they said, he has proved to be an unusually forgiving combatant. He has exchanged cordial notes with former congressman James E. Rogan (R-Calif.), one of the House managers who prosecuted his impeachment trial. His wife has teamed up on political initiatives with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), another manager, and former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who helped drive impeachment. Clinton even broke bread with Richard Mellon Scaife, the wealthy conservative who bankrolled many of the anti-Clinton projects in the 1990s.
"He's not a normal politician who keeps score in his head and remembers everything," said Joe Lockhart, who served as Clinton White House press secretary and still stays in touch. "There are people who did him wrong a million times that he loves. . . . But there are exceptions. Starr is one."
Clinton himself said in his New Hampshire appearance that his heart surgery a few years back changed his outlook. "I'm very close now to former president Bush," he said of the man he defeated in 1992. "I've always liked him a lot, and I've actually got a good relationship with the current president, because I just made up my mind that after I survived my heart trouble, I was too old to have enemies with anybody."