An Apolitical Pose
By Michael Grunwald and Juliet Eilperin
There were stacks of them in the House Majority Whip's Office yesterday, and the hefty three-ring binders advertised a grave purpose: "Our Constitutional Responsibilities: A Special Report Prepared by Tom DeLay." The binders were crammed with facts: a detailed history of Watergate, a thorough explanation of civil perjury, an exhaustive primer on impeachment.
The purpose, DeLay explained, was to offer a copy to any of his colleagues who wanted one to "better understand the constitutional, historical and procedural framework that will guide the House of Representatives in the days ahead," not to boost DeLay's already well-publicized campaign to get President Clinton out of office.
Still, the binders included a straightforward memo from DeLay himself: "Censure is not a viable option for the Congress concerning the Clinton/Lewinsky affair."
With the arrival of the report from independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, many of Clinton's most outspoken critics are feeling a sense of vindication. But for DeLay and the 23 other House Republicans who have called for Clinton's resignation, yesterday posed a public relations challenge: how to tone down their rhetoric while not backing away from their criticism of Clinton.
Behind the scenes, DeLay held two meetings yesterday with some of Clinton's staunchest critics in the House to strategize about today's public release of Starr's report. And some of them are talking about gathering signatures for a resolution calling on the president to resign.
Publicly, they have tried to strike a delicate balance between outrage and impartiality, attacking the president for his political decisions while proclaiming their neutrality on his legal case.
But they also have seen Clinton resurrect his political fortunes before, and even his most bitter enemies were talking yesterday about the president's uncanny survival skills.
"It's not going to be easy to be impartial," said Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.), who has urged Clinton to quit. "But I have to separate my personal feelings about the president from my feelings about his impeachment. Everyone in Congress is going to have to do that."
Republican and Democratic leaders have pledged to keep politics out of the impeachment process, and DeLay insisted that his binders amounted to nonpartisan "educational material."
"I know some will try to paint this with a partisan brush, but they should know this information is available to Democrats as well as Republicans," DeLay said. "As a matter of fact, we have provided it to at least one Democratic member so far."
Still, at a meeting yesterday morning, DeLay and other members of his GOP whip team revved up the troops, warning that White House operatives will try to dig up dirt on the president's political opponents. Several of them referred darkly to yesterday's admission by Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho) that she had a relationship with a married man 14 years ago, even though Chenoweth said the White House had nothing to do with her decision to go public.
Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), another outspoken Clinton critic, recently admitted to fathering a child out of wedlock and accused the White House of trying to plant the story in Vanity Fair magazine to discredit him.
The White House has denied trying to smear any of its political opponents, but administration officials did apologize to Rep. Paul McHale (Pa.), the only Democrat who has called for Clinton's resignation, after an anonymous aide called in false information about his military record to the Geraldo Rivera show.
"They try to destroy anyone who stands up and says what the president is doing is wrong," said Rep. Barbara Cubin (R-Wyo.), a deputy whip who attended the meeting and has sought Clinton's resignation. "That's their modus operandi."
Still, Cubin stopped short of calling for Clinton's impeachment, and so have the rest of her colleagues. They will not do that, they said, until they have read Starr's report.
"Calling for his resignation is different than calling for his impeachment," said Rep. George Purdy Radanovich (R-Calif.). "We're saying he should have the decency to leave office on his own and save the country from the turmoil this review is going to cause."
House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) yesterday made an unusual plea for decorum from the speaker's chair, admonishing his colleagues that now is not the time to launch personal attacks on the president.
But DeLay clearly is establishing a streamlined operation to beat the drum for the president's departure. And other congressional critics of Clinton are lobbing more haphazard attacks. For example, Rep. James A. Traficant Jr., a maverick Democrat from Ohio, vowed to keep discussing Clinton's personal conduct, no matter what Gingrich said.
"Last time I saw [Clinton] he was swinging on the chandelier in the Oval Office with a brassiere around his head, Viagra in one hand and a Bible in the other, and he was torn between good and evil," Traficant said. "I'm going to say what I want to say and I don't give a damn who says what."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company