Livingston Foresaw Leadership Problems
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 21, 1998; Page A19
Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) acknowledged yesterday that there had been considerable concern among House Republicans about his past extramarital affairs and that he may have had trouble commanding their loyalty as House speaker.
"With a slim majority, it would have been hard enough to lead the Republicans," Livingston said in an extensive interview. "But under a cloud it would have been very difficult indeed. I think I could have survived it, but it was going to be difficult even under the best of circumstances."
In fact, shortly before the House Speaker-designate's stunning announcement Saturday that he would step aside because of the controversy over his sexual past, he was told by Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) that at least 18 Republicans were having second thoughts and some might not support him for speaker in the 106th Congress, which convenes next month.
Rep. Greg Ganske (R-Iowa), one of his critics, approached Livingston on Friday and asked him to reconsider accepting the speakership in January.
Others, including social conservative Reps. Steve Largent (R-Okla.) and Donald Manzullo (R-Ill.) had also openly voiced concern that Livingston hadn't made the disclosure before seeking the speakership last month.
"I concluded I would not have been effectively leading 100 percent of the Republicans," Livingston said yesterday. "So it was a matter of cutting your losses."
Livingston's concern about his deteriorating base of support was precipitated by reports that Hustler magazine, published by Larry Flynt, was preparing a detailed expose» about the past extramarital affairs of Livingston and other members of Congress. "There are some pretty seedy aspects to public life," he said.
His wife, Bonnie, had urged that he disclose his past indiscretions to his GOP colleagues on Thursday to get ahead of any adverse publicity. Some GOP leaders and advisers had argued against that, saying the timing was bad coming on the eve of the House deliberations on the articles of impeachment concerning President Clinton's alleged lies about a sexual affair.
The Capitol was awash in rumor and intrigue as Livingston left his office late Friday, after completing a draft of the speech he would deliver the next morning advocating that the House vote to impeach President Clinton.
Livingston said he had complained to his staff that his speech "really needs a punch line." But by 2 a.m. Saturday, as he pondered his fate in his suburban Virginia home, he finally settled on a stunner: He would give up the speakership and urge Clinton to resign as well to spare the nation any more trauma.
"Then I had a glass of milk and went back to bed," Livingston said.
Livingston said he reached the decision on his own, and disputed reports that his wife had insisted that he resign as speaker, saying that she had told him she would support any decision he reached.
"She was totally supportive from day one," Livingston said, "She was a stalwart. She doesn't deserve to get tagged with this. . . . This Larry Flynt thing got to me and I made the decision."
Bonnie Livingston, the congressman's wife of 33 years, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that her husband's decision and speech "was his finest moment."
Livingston received overwhelming bipartisan praise for his decision, yet many in Washington were still trying to fully understand his motivations and the long-term consequences of his startling decision.
Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.), a friend of Livingston's, said he regretted Livingston's decision and doesn't believe, as many Republicans are suggesting, that it set an example that Clinton should follow.
"I don't think Bob Livingston should have resigned," he said on ABC's "This Week" program. "We lost a good public servant who could have made a major contribution. I feel very bad about what has happened."
Rep. J.C. Watts (Okla.), the new chairman of the House Republican Conference, said on the same program, "Bob Livingston is a decent man, and I think he chose to resign and I think the president, as Mr. Livingston said, has to do the same thing."
Livingston said he thought he could survive as speaker if he had decided to stay, though it was apparent that conservative activists had begun to meet privately to plot possible action against him. Wamp, a Livingston backer, said even before he resigned that there were discussions "on who might be prepared to step in as speaker."
Wamp said he went to Livingston Saturday morning during a procedural vote, put his hand on his shoulder and told him that a number of Republicans had reservations about him now as speaker.
"He looked at me and said, 'You need to find a new leader. I can't put my wife and family through this,'‚" Wamp said.
Livingston, 55, was first elected to Congress in 1977, and rose to power as a member of the House Appropriations Committee. He was handpicked by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to become chairman of the committee after the GOP takeover in 1994, and was poised to succeed the retiring Gingrich next month.
Livingston said he would resign his House seat in six months, to give his staff sufficient time to find other jobs, while he, too, lines up a new career. Ironically, Gingrich helped talk Livingston out of quitting Congress last February when he was prepared to take a high-paying job as a Washington lawyer and lobbyist.
Despite his abrupt reversal of fate, Livingston said yesterday, "I wouldn't trade this year for anything . . . although I don't know if I would have written the ending."
"I think I have done a lot in the Congress, I have helped my constituents and I have tried to comport myself in a dignified way," he added. "I'm not ashamed."
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