By Lloyd Grove
Rep. Bob Barr has never shied away from political bungee-jumping.
When he was a Reagan-appointed U.S. attorney who craved elective office in Georgia, he enraged the state's GOP establishment by successfully prosecuting one of its own, then-Rep. Pat Swindall. Three years later in 1992, during a tight Senate primary race against now-Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.), Barr enlivened a Leukemia Society luncheon by as one local newspaper put it "licking whipped cream from the chests of two buxom women."
In 1995, as a House freshman from Georgia's conservative 7th Congressional District outside Atlanta, he championed the so-called Defense of Marriage Act notwithstanding that Barr himself was on his third marriage while his two divorces and a dispute over medical expenses with his second wife were issues used by opponents in the 1994 campaign.
Now Barr, 49, is leading the charge to impeach a popular president and making the Republican leadership just a tad nervous.
"My constituents didn't send me up here to glad-hand and have a good time. They sent me up here to get something done," Barr said recently in his Longworth Building office, as a spate of allegations about Clinton and a White House intern garnered publicity, if not support, for HR 304. That's Barr's resolution directing the House Judiciary Committee "to undertake an inquiry into whether grounds exist to impeach William Jefferson Clinton, the President of the United States." Barr introduced it last fall way before the current headlines claiming White House abuses of power in earlier scandals.
"Bob never throws a grenade when a nuclear bomb will work," quips Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), one of a tiny band of Barr's co-sponsors.
Souder says it admiringly.
But the Republican powers that be so far have shown no stomach for Barr's crusade, never mind that last week House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and several committee chairmen discussed contingency plans in case an impeachment inquiry becomes inevitable.
"I'm very glad if [the discussion] does reflect an effort on the part of the leadership to lay the groundwork for that contingency in the near future," Barr said yesterday of the meeting, first reported by Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper. "I expect it will make it more comfortable for members to take a more active role in support of what we're doing."
For now, though, Gingrich has been keeping the resolution bottled up in the Rules Committee, while Gingrich's lieutenants have been exhorting Republicans to keep their lips zipped on the latest White House scandal.
"We are using responsible self-restraint that is uncharacteristic in this Congress," says House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Tex.). "I don't think we have the kind of evidentiary basis to be talking about impeachment at this time. I don't really think you should, when it's such an important matter and it's frankly still in the abstract."
"An impeachment proceeding must be bipartisan in the final analysis. ... It can't be seen as a purely political, vindictive, partisan exercise," says House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), who opposes Barr's resolution as "premature" until independent counsel Kenneth Starr comes up with hard evidence. "There's no need to leap before we know where we're jumping."
Top leadership staffers, meanwhile, have been urging discipline among the membership, and Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, chairman of the Republican Conference, recently instructed a group of House press secretaries to steer clear of the perilous "I-word." When Barr introduced his resolution Nov. 5, he was joined by 17 co-sponsors; in the past three months he's picked up only three more.
"For months I urged the leaders of my party to take action. To finally say enough is enough. But my cries fell on deaf ears," Barr said in a speech two weeks ago to the Conservative Political Action Conference. In private, according to a witness, he was more pointed: "If Newt wasn't sitting so hard on this, we'd have 200 co-sponsors not 20!"
Gingrich did not return a phone call seeking comment.
"The leadership basically controls what moves forward and what does not," Barr says in his smallish office, shortly after successfully managing the bill to rename National Airport for Ronald Reagan. "And as persuasive as I think I might be, when it comes to the Republican conference there are other people who carry more weight."
Still, Barr adds: "My background tells me that you put together a successful case not by just sitting back and waiting for it to drop into your lap with a nice red ribbon and a big bow and a guaranteed favorable result. You put together a successful case by working it hard, working it consistently, working it constantly, working it proactively."
This Barr has doing since early last year, when he started his push for the impeachment inquiry with a letter to Hyde. He followed up with "Dear Colleague" letters looking for support. These days he publishes regular inquiry updates on his World Wide Web site. "BARR: 'SMOKING GUN? ABSOLUTELY!'‚" a recent entry was titled.
But House Democrats and Clinton loyalists claim not to be concerned.
"He's part of the radical fringe element of the Republican Party, and he is obsessed with impeaching the president," scoffs Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a frequent adversary of Barr. "He should look into his own closet and be very careful. Ever since I was a young child, I always heard that people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones."
The White House is eager to portray the latest scandal frenzy as just a circus and Barr in the words of a senior Clinton adviser as "a clown in the center ring." But Barr, who marshals his assertions in the level tone of a trial lawyer, doesn't sound much like a clown.
"Initially, primarily watching the way the people in the White House operate, it raised some very serious questions in my mind," says Barr, a member of both the House Judiciary Committee and the Government Reform and Oversight Committee, which is looking into Clinton's campaign fund-raising. "They didn't seem to care at all what the law allowed them to do or prohibited them from doing.
"When we started looking at 'Filegate' [in which White House staffers obtained confidential FBI files on Republican officials], it became very obvious to me that something was very, very wrong," Barr continues. "Outraged? I don't know that I was outraged. But it's very distressing to see somebody elected president and set that sort of tone."
Barr lists such allegations against the Clinton White House as conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws, including the supposed illegal raising of foreign money and the charges of favorable government treatment in return for campaign contributions, as grounds for an inquiry.
"Well, how do we deal with it?" he asks. "Do we leave it up to the prosecutors? I don't think so. The Constitution provides the mechanism."
Barr says he started researching the history of impeachment, from the 18th century writings of Alexander Hamilton "he said it was 'a political tool for a political offense,'‚" Barr says to a thick document titled "Constitutional Grounds for Presidential Impeachment," produced in February 1974 by the House impeachment inquiry staff. Among the authors: a young Yale Law School graduate named Hillary Rodham.
"In our system of government, the only vehicle we have to remove somebody from office if they abuse their office is impeachment," Barr maintains.
While the Monica Lewinsky scandal has attracted attention to his cause, Barr insists it hasn't made him any more energized in the pursuit. "With this latest aspect, it's more a relief than anything else," he says. "At least people are sitting up and taking notice. But it doesn't matter what I think, or what any member of Congress thinks, except perhaps Newt. It's what the people of the country think.
"They're going to have to decide if these things are important. If you look at the polls, maybe they've already decided that these things aren't important. But I don't think those polls really reflect how people feel about the underlying issues not the sex issues, but what we want the office of the president to be, what sort of ethical standard we want. . . . If the people let their congressmen know, I'm presuming that a lot of members will come on board."
Barr's people, at least, seem to be strongly supportive. In his white suburban congressional district, Pat Buchanan Barr's favorite presidential candidate won the 1996 Republican primary vote, and Bob Dole trounced Clinton in the general election. Trying to cut short Clinton's second term would seem to be wonderful politics for Barr. Still, his ally Souder says political calculation has never been the hallmark of Barr's behavior.
"Bob doesn't necessarily think how things are going to play out for him," he says. "For instance, in spite of getting married three times, he sponsored the Defense of Marriage Act." During the controversy over the legislation, written to prevent the legitimizing of same-sex marriages, Barr took his lumps in the press for his own marital history. "And they were lumps screaming to be taken," Souder says. "But Bob just kind of roars ahead."
Barr has been a key player on some of the most controversial legislation of the last three years. On one, the Anti-Terrorism Act, he yoked together the National Rifle Association one of his closest political allies and the American Civil Liberties Union to soften features of the law giving the federal government increased power to curtail individual freedoms in the service of national security.
"We worked well and closely together with mutual respect and with some sense of mutual irony," ACLU Executive Director Ira Glasser says of Barr.
But many of Barr's colleagues don't appreciate his zeal.
"Bob has personal relationship problems with a lot of people," Souder says, stressing that he is not one of them. "I have usually gotten along with him, though everybody has their ups and downs with him. His temperament rubs a lot of people the wrong way. But after I went on two Codels [congressional delegations] with him, and I saw him smile, I warmed up to him."
"I've heard that about me," Barr acknowledges with grin. "Why don't you just say I'm a nice guy and leave it at that?"
He was born in Iowa City, the second of six children, and grew up in far-flung sites around the world everywhere from Baghdad to Tehran to Lima as his father, Bob Sr., pursued a career in the Army Corps of Engineers. After graduating from the University of Southern California, Barr earned a law degree from Georgetown University, served seven years as a CIA intelligence analyst and then moved to Georgia, where he plunged into Republican politics while earning a modest living as a criminal defense lawyer.
"I enjoy defense more than anything," he once said, in a quote that has followed him from campaign to campaign. "Virtually everybody you deal with is despicable to varying degrees a lot of scumbags and people you wouldn't chose to hobnob with. But the issues are fun to deal with."
Recommended by then-senator Mack Mattingly (R-Ga.), Barr, then GOP chairman in his congressional district, was appointed U.S. attorney in 1986. He developed a reputation as a man who loved to see his name in lights but seldom saw the inside of a courtroom a task he left to his assistants.
Barr's decision to go after Pat Swindall on perjury charges made him many enemies among his fellow Republicans especially Swindall's House colleague Gingrich. The future speaker lobbied hard to force Barr out of the U.S. attorney's office, and Barr did leave in 1990, several months before his term expired, to run the conservative Southeastern Legal Foundation. Barr denies that he quit under pressure, and says he and Gingrich have never discussed the episode.
Barr won his House seat in 1994, having tried in 1984 for the Georgia legislature and in 1992 for the Senate. The whipped cream incident occurred when Barr's table mates at the Leukemia Society luncheon paid $200 to the charity to watch him get his licks in. Would Barr still engage in such conduct if he had it do to all over again?
"Heavens no!" he says. "It was a charity event ... and people were having a good time." His impeachment inquiry effort, he adds, "doesn't have anything to with shenanigans or playing around. What bothers me is abuse of power. This is very serious business."
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