By Juliet Eilperin
Armey (R-Tex.) told students at Coppell High School near Dallas Monday: "If it were me that had documented personal conduct along the lines of the president's, I would be so filled with shame that I would resign. This president won't do that. His basic credo in life is, 'I will do whatever I can get away with.' "
While he is not the first GOP politician to question Clinton's character, Armey's strongly worded statement, which he reiterated yesterday, is part of a new willingness on the part of Republican leaders to chastise the president on moral, more than legal, grounds.
Clinton adviser Paul Begala called Armey's comments "goofy," adding in a CNN interview that they represented an attempt by "right-wing Republicans to form an alliance with [independent counsel] Ken Starr in a very partisan investigation."
The harsher comments are not part of a crafted strategy, Republican officials say, but rather reflect a lifting of the "no comment" edict. That approach was formulated when the allegations of misconduct by Clinton surfaced in January and Republicans reasoned that partisan reaction would only distract from what they saw as the president's overwhelming problem. Subsequent public reaction has tended to support Clinton.
Central to the more aggressive philosophy has been House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who maintains a public stance of waiting to see what Starr produces but displays less reticence in private. In addition to telling his colleagues privately last week that Starr's upcoming report on Clinton could boost the GOP's electoral chances, he has made no move to quell his more voluble colleagues.
When Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) was preparing to attack Clinton on the House floor March 19, he gave Gingrich a warning. Gingrich's reaction, according to DeLay spokesman John Phillippe, was "go for it, more power to you."
But while DeLay demanded an explanation for Clinton's conduct, Armey passed judgment. "Personal responsibility is a value all parents try to instill in their children," he said in a statement yesterday. "I could not let these children think the president is a good role model."
Armey has urged Republicans to broaden their concept of social issues. In a memo distributed to the Republican Conference last week he included a section on upcoming legislation labeled "values and moral emphasis," which listed measures like freedom from religious persecution and a ban on Internet gambling.
Armey spokeswoman Michele Davis said he was simply speaking to this question of morals when faced with the students.
According to another Armey aide, the lawmaker will continue to question Clinton's conduct. "There's definitely a hunger to discuss this in the right context," the staff member said.
Christian conservatives, who recently questioned the House GOP's commitment to their agenda, applauded Armey's comments.
"I'm not an adviser to the Republican Party," Pat Robertson said on his "700 Club" show. "But if I were . . . I'd say that they'd better follow Dick Armey, and do a little bit more of this, because they're in danger of losing the Congress this fall."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company