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Analysis: Clinton Looks to the History Books

Clinton on Trial

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  • By Peter Baker
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, January 11, 1999; Page A1

    With the Senate unlikely to muster 67 votes for conviction, what is at stake for President Clinton as his impeachment trial begins in earnest this week may not be whether he remains in office but how this episode and his presidency will be viewed by history.

    Clinton, long obsessed about his legacy, has resigned himself that he will never be able to erase the taint of being only the second president ever impeached. But the way the trial is conducted and how senators conclude it, even assuming they do not convict Clinton, could determine whether future generations remember him as a scandalous rogue crippled by his philandering and deceit or a talented president victimized by a partisan and puritanical witch hunt.

    And so for a White House that has made a fine art out of spinning the latest news cycle, the challenge now is figuring out a way to spin history.

    The president's allies have wasted little time in this endeavor, making their first stab at it on the same day Clinton was impeached by the House for "high crimes and misdemeanors." Within hours of the votes, Vice President Gore appeared at Clinton's side on the South Lawn to declare that the House action "does a great disservice to a man I believe will be regarded in the history books as one of our greatest presidents."

    In aiming his remarks not at the Senate jurors but at posterity, Gore's pronouncement set the tone for a White House interpretation that aides hope to cement as the trial unfolds that the prosecution of the president, no matter how it concludes, has been illegitimate and will be viewed that way by grandchildren studying it decades from now. "It was clearly getting that marker down in that direction," said a White House official who did not want to be named. "It's very debatable how this is going to be looked on and obviously we want to push that view of things."

    In the weeks since the House approved two articles of impeachment on Dec. 19, White House strategy deliberations have been filtered in part through that same legacy lens, particularly the discussion over how aggressively to seek a full trial and acquittal vs. short-circuiting the process through a congressional resolution that would censure Clinton while leaving him in office.

    Although the president has said he would accept censure to avoid a drawn-out battle, confidants say he is tempted at times to hold out for acquittal and nothing else on the theory that such a verdict would vindicate him. A variety of outside advisers has pressed this view with him and his aides, including campaign consultant James Carville, Hollywood producer Harry Thomason, former senator Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

    "The reason I'm enamored of a trial is I think it gives us a record for history and I think the record would be more favorable for us than the record that exists now," Carville said.

    But senior White House officials have resisted such an approach for now. Instead they have been pushing sometimes against Clinton's own instincts for a censure resolution that would denounce him for his actions in trying to cover up his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky during legal proceedings.

    Unlike an outright acquittal, such a resolution could undermine Clinton's attempts to portray this process as nothing more than vindictiveness by his enemies, particularly if both parties come together to support censure as they did during last week's debate over trial rules. Few would say so publicly, but White House strategists saw bad news in the 100 to 0 decision Friday by the Senate to put aside differences and set procedures for the trial because it served to legitimize a process they have been able to dismiss as Republican perfidy because of the consistent party-line votes in the House.

    "If he is censured, history is going to look less kindly on him than if he's not censured, that's for sure," said George Edwards, director of the Center for Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University. "It gives a substantial amount of legitimacy to all of the flogging of Clinton that's taken place in many quarters."

    The shorter-term "opportunity costs" of a protracted trial, though, weighed more heavily for many White House officials who desperately want to end a political crisis that will have enveloped the administration for a full year as of next week. And some advisers concluded that censure might yet prove useful in shaping the historical depiction of this period.

    "It will isolate this as an act of poor judgment, hold him accountable for it but still allow people to put it in perspective in the long run of history," said Lanny J. Davis, a former White House special counsel who serves as a public surrogate for Clinton in the Lewinsky case. "I'm not sure the president would agree with that. . . . [But] among his friends and supporters, there is a feeling that censure is necessary for him to get closure and for his presidency to be judged fairly."

    Moreover, as some advisers see it, the best way to shape history will be for Clinton to finish on a political high and the best way for him to do that will be to secure major accomplishments on the policy front before the 2000 political calendar makes it impossible. In this view, restructuring Social Security or Medicare to avert financial insolvency will go a long way toward improving the Clinton legacy.

    But would a quick resolution of the Lewinsky matter be so unsatisfying for diehard opponents that they would feel the need to take out their frustration by blocking his initiatives? Or would a long trial so poison relations that the Democratic president could no longer work effectively with the Republican Congress?

    Aides clearly worry about the latter calculation. "How do we ever get back with Rick Santorum and say, 'Save Medicare with us?'" after a long, bitter trial, asked one White House official, picking the Pennsylvania Republican senator as an example. "If they try to run my guy out of office, how do I sit down and work with these guys?"

    In the view of many critics, it will not make a difference how the Senate trial ends because impeachment by the House amounted to the ultimate censure. Clinton's place in history, they believe, is set.

    "If history's accurate . . . it's not going to be good," said John W. Whitehead, president of the Virginia-based Rutherford Institute that financed Paula Jones's lawsuit against Clinton. "I don't think he's going to go down as the worst president ever. But he's going to be remembered as an embattled president who had problems with telling the truth and issues of morality. . . . You can't get away from it. He's going to be marked forever. And it's his fault."

    History has been through this before, of course, and has a way of reevaluating presidents. Richard M. Nixon, who resigned in 1974 after the House Judiciary Committee approved articles of impeachment, enjoyed periods when he was judged less harshly, thanks mainly to his foreign policy accomplishments. This reevaluation occurred particularly around the time of his death in 1994.

    And yet the release of secret Oval Office tape recordings over the last year or so has revived memories of Nixon's vindictiveness toward his foes and his callous disregard for the law.

    Likewise, Andrew Johnson's image has evolved in the 131 years since he became the first president impeached by the House and tried by the Senate. After years of bitter struggle with Radical Republicans in Congress over his go-easy approach toward the former Confederate states, Johnson came to trial in 1868 for firing a Cabinet secretary without obtaining congressional permission first, as required by a law enacted over his veto. Johnson was acquitted by a single vote and the law was later declared unconstitutional, but historians have been debating his case ever since.

    "The historical interpretation of any president changes many times," said Eric Foner, a Columbia University historian and Johnson specialist. "There's no such thing as a single historical legacy. The interpretations of almost every historical figure go up and down depending on the context of the times."

    Foner noted that Johnson's stock grew during the 1920s when he was seen as a great defender of the Constitution against vengeful radicals and then suffered again during the civil rights era when he was viewed as a racist intent on preserving Southern oppression of blacks.

    Today, Foner added, most historians view Johnson not only as racist but also incompetent, regardless of impeachment. "Maybe he shouldn't have been impeached," he said, "but I don't think you'll find any historian who would say a good word about him as president."

    Still, Clinton is no Johnson and their cases are set against different political backdrops. This is the first time a president elected by the people has been tried by senators elected by the people; Vice President Johnson ascended to the top after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the senators of his day were chosen by state legislatures.

    And unlike that era, the events of 1998 and 1999 are being captured on video for future generations to judge for themselves. That offers some solace to Clinton advisers who believe he will have the same effect on future Americans as he has had on today's voters.

    "One hundred years from now, people will look at the film of the president and the film of the other people . . . and people don't change," said one person close to the president. "In the year 2099, it's going to be 72 percent believe that it was just trumped-up charges, 28 percent are going to believe the guy was a crook and should have been ousted with a stake in his heart. It's frozen in time for eons."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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