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Livingston Resignation Crystallized Debate

Gingrich and Livingston Outgoing House Speaker Newt Gingrich, right, greets Rep. Bob Livingston outside the House Chamber Saturday. (AP)

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  • By Robert G. Kaiser
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, December 20, 1998; Page

    The speaker-in-waiting, Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), sighed deeply yesterday morning as he presented a familiar rationale for impeaching President Clinton. He seemed oddly uncomfortable standing in the well of the House. Then he began to read from handwritten pages he had added to his speech and his tone changed. So did the atmosphere in the chamber.

    "You have done great damage to this nation," Livingston said, addressing President Clinton. "You, sir, may resign your post."

    Democrats reacted by hissing and by booing the man who had confessed his own adultery two days earlier. Then a chorus began: "You resign! You resign!" Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) tried to calm his colleagues. The presiding officer banged his gavel: "The House will be in order!"

    Livingston continued: "And I can only challenge you in such fashion if I am willing to heed my own words. To my colleagues, my friends and most especially my wife and family, I have hurt you all deeply and I beg your forgiveness. I was prepared to lead our narrow majority as speaker . . . but I cannot do that job or be the kind of leader that I would like to be under current circumstances. So I must set the example that I hope President Clinton will follow. I will not stand for speaker of the House on January 6."

    Members were edgy already, knowing they were about to impeach a president for the second time in the history of the republic. But no one was prepared for the electricity of this moment. It suddenly crystallized a debate that had meandered ineffectually for days, first in committee and then on the floor.

    When they got their bearings, Republicans and Democrats both began to scramble to their feet to applaud. The emotion was palpable. Two speakers had gone down in just six weeks. Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), the leader of pro-impeachment forces, "The Hammer" of legend who has dominated the House as majority whip, put his head in his hands, then wiped tears from his eyes.

    It took the Democrats only a few minutes to seize on the resignation as proof of the very point they have been trying to make during the impeachment debate. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), a fireplug of a congressman who relishes verbal repartee, was the first to take up the point:

    "I believe Bob Livingston's resignation, while offered in good faith, was wrong. It is a surrender – " he said before he was interrupted by applause, mostly from Democrats. "It is a surrender to a developing sexual McCarthyism. Are we going to have a new test if someone wants to run for public office: Are you now or have you ever been an adulterer? We are losing sight of the distinction between sins, which ought to be between a person and his family and his god, and crimes, which are the concern of the state and of society as a whole. ... But the impeachment of the president is even worse. Because again we're losing track of the distinction between sins and crimes. We're lowering the standard of impeachment. What the president has done is not . . . an impeachable offense under the Constitution."

    The Republicans joined the argument. Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee and chief proponent of impeachment – himself revealed as an adulterer earlier in the year – brought his enormous frame to the lectern in the well of the House:

    "My friends, those of us who are sinners must feel especially wretched today, losing Bob Livingston under such sad circumstances. One's self-esteem gets utterly crushed at times like this. But something is going on repeatedly that has to be stopped and that is a confusion between private acts of infidelity and public acts. ...

    "As a government official," Hyde said, "you raise your right hand and you ask God to witness to the truth of what you're saying. That's a public act. Infidelity – adultery – is not a public act, it's a private act, and the government, the Congress has no business intruding into private acts. But it is our business, it is our duty to observe, to characterize public acts by public officials, and so I hope that confusion doesn't persist."

    Clinton's transgressions were not simply private, and he did not deserve to be spared, Hyde said. "Equal justice under the law, that's what we're fighting for, and when the chief law enforcement officer trivializes, ignores, shreds, minimizes the sanctity of the oath, then justice is wounded, and you are wounded, and your children are wounded."

    Hyde's eloquence rang through the chamber. Finally, the debate had reached a rhetorical level that seemed to match its historic significance. Then Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), the minority leader, came to the well to speak. He had won a bipartisan ovation Friday by declaring that "the politics of smear and slash and burn must end." He recalled those remarks yesterday in the context of Livingston's resignation.

    "It is with that same passion that I say to all of you today that the gentleman from Louisiana, Bob Livingston, is a worthy and good and honorable man." Both sides applauded. "I believe his decision to retire is a terrible capitulation to the negative forces that are consuming our political system and our country." More applause.

    ". . . We need to stop destroying imperfect people at the altar of an unobtainable morality. ... We are now rapidly descending into a politics where life imitates farce. Fratricide dominates our public debate and America is held hostage with tactics of smear and fear. Let all of us here today say no to resignation, no to impeachment, no to hatred, no to intolerance of each other, and no to vicious self-righteousness." Applause again.

    Before the day was done an unlikely scene developed on the Republican side of the aisle. After most of the speechmaking was done, Livingston sat for several minutes surrounded by Democrats from the Appropriations Committee that he chaired for the last four years. The committee may be the last redoubt of old-fashioned bipartisanship in the House. Reps. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Vic Fazio (D-Calif.) were comforting Livingston, joking with him and patting his arms and shoulders. Optimistic proponents of reducing the partisan rancor in the House had expressed hopes that a Livingston speakership might have promoted their cause.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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