Scandal's Damage Wide, if Not Deep
By David S. Broder and Dan Balz
As the Senate trial of President Clinton moves to its conclusion, the damage from the events of the past year is widespread. Clinton's personal reputation has plummeted as a result of his conduct, Congress has suffered from its displays of excessive partisanship, and the news media's reputation has been hurt by its accelerating appetite for scandal.
"The damage has been pervasive," said William Galston, a professor at the University of Maryland. "The real question is, how long-lasting?"
As with much else that occurred during the past year, predicting the answer to Galston's question is risky. After all, predictions that this winter's lengthy National Basketball Association strike would produce arenas of empty seats have proven untrue.
But with trust in institutions still at perilously low levels and clear public anger toward the partisanship that has become the norm in Washington, the country's political leadership – presidential and congressional – faces a delicate rebuilding job.
"The national government is not like a hotel room that you can occupy for a night and trash like a rock star," Galston said. "You're a temporary resident, but you have responsibilities that go beyond the duration of your occupancy. All the denizens of these institutions have to think of themselves as responsible for the well-being of the institutions they temporarily occupy."
Virtually every institution that has come into contact with the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal has come away from it tarnished. "I think all the institutions involved have looked bad except the Constitution of the United States," former senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) said on CNN this week.
But many of these analysts are quick to add that the long-term effects may look quite different from the Watergate crisis of 25 years ago, which enhanced the reputation of the press and shifted the power balance between Congress and the president.
The presidency, for example, may not be radically altered because of Clinton's misdeeds, although public expectations for the occupants of the office may be lowered. Congress may not be the target of public ire, but congressional Republicans could be.
Still, the spectacle that played to smaller and smaller audiences could deepen the sense of cynicism and disillusionment toward politics and Washington, and that could be longer-lasting unless political leaders and the media respond to it.
"My worry is that even after the impeachment saga comes to an end, the failure of the parties and of the entertainment-driven media will continue to reinforce the idea of politics as spectator sport – a sport that the public attends to only intermittently," said Michael Sandel, a professor at Harvard University.
Clinton may have degraded the office and damaged his moral authority to govern by his personal conduct, but presidential scholars predicted the long-term impact of the Lewinsky investigation and the impeachment trial on the institution of the presidency will be more limited.
"The institution of the presidency was profoundly affected by Watergate," said Robert Dallek, a biographer of President Lyndon B. Johnson. "This is much more a personal than a governmental crisis. ... It does diminish the moral authority of the man for the time being, but it has less institutional impact than the Watergate crisis."
Thomas Cronin, president of Whitman College and a presidential scholar, agreed. "My judgment is that the institution of the presidency will survive pretty well," he said. "What is being punished here is the individual, not the institution."
The presidency, more than other governmental institutions, is idiosyncratic, as much a reflection of the person who occupies it at the moment and the events of the time as it is a measure of the inherent powers available to any chief executive. "We thought the presidency had gone into a total decline in the period from Watergate to Jimmy Carter's [defeat]," said Fred Greenstein of Princeton University. "Then with [Ronald] Reagan, it seemed robust again. Events often override these episodes."
But scholars said that with the end of the Cold War, the presidency has been reduced in importance in the eyes of the American people, and Clinton's conduct has only further diminished the grandeur of the office.
Ross Baker of Rutgers University said the revelations of John F. Kennedy's sexual escapades as president pulled the presidency down from its lofty perch. "The public doesn't speak of it anymore in hushed, reverential tones," he said. "Bill Clinton has succeeded in bringing it down even further. ... I think that in some ways it has become, for the time being, a debased institution."
James Ceaser, a professor of government at the University of Virginia, said the longer-term effects of Clinton's impeachment on the presidency are not yet clear. The two responses, he said, are a corruption of the office – the sense that any president can get away with what Clinton did – or a reaction against it – the feeling that "it should never happen again and it can't happen again." Ceaser said the outcome "is very much up in the air."
Scholars said they do not anticipate the kind of legislative backlash against the institution of the presidency that followed Watergate. Richard M. Nixon's resignation came at a time Congress was attempting to rein in the powers of "the imperial presidency," domestically and in foreign affairs. Among the legislative responses was the creation of the independent counsel.
In this decade, Congress was prepared to give more power to the president through the line-item veto, which the courts have said is unconstitutional, and the independent counsel statute could be eliminated or significantly rewritten when it comes up for renewal this year – an action that would strengthen the institution of the presidency.
"I'm suspicious about these sweeping statements about permanent changes being wrought in the relationships between major institutions," Baker said. "Real changes have come about from external forces like depression and civil war and world war and cold war rather than the evanescent personality of a single president."
Congress and Parties
Scholars of Congress are almost unanimous in saying that the impeachment process has heightened a two-decade-old trend of increasing partisanship, especially in the House. Because the public dislikes partisan squabbling, the reputation of Congress has suffered.
"It sure hasn't helped," said David Rohde, a political scientist at Michigan State University. "The public evaluation of Congress is up from where it was in the early '90s, but it's still on the negative end." Congress got a favorable rating from a narrow majority of the public in a Washington Post-ABC News poll as recently as last December, but a CBS News poll taken last week found 55 percent disapproval and 36 percent approval.
John J. Pitney Jr. of Claremont McKenna College said, "This is yet another chapter in a long, sad story of inter-party relations that goes back to the late 1970s. It's much harsher in the House than in the Senate, where it's layered over by a veneer of civility."
"In the House," he said, "there's an undertow of resentment," with Republicans recalling the slights they received during 40 years of Democratic control and Democrats bristling at the changes that came in with Newt Gingrich and the hard-line freshman class elected in 1994.
Richard Fenno of the University of Rochester called the impeachment process "a fairly major black eye" for Congress. He predicted that "political tensions will be a lot greater and come a lot earlier than they did in the last two Congresses. Democrats can sense blood."
With a shift of only six seats needed to overturn current GOP majorities in each chamber, current polls show the Democrats in a strong position. During the weeks that the House and Senate were debating impeachment, approval scores for Republicans tanked, while Democrats' scores held even or gained.
Last week's CBS poll gave Republicans a 40 percent favorable to 49 percent unfavorable rating, while Democrats enjoyed a 57 percent favorable score to 32 percent unfavorable.
Rohde said that even without impeachment, "There probably wouldn't have been much of a record in the 106th Congress. You've got divided government, a close balance between the parties and a lame-duck president. That's not a formula for success." But, he said, electoral pressures as November 2000 approaches "will create incentives on both sides to show they can achieve something."
Former representative Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), who retired last year, said that while "impeachment has hugely distracted both the White House and Congress, I think there is a self-corrective capacity in Congress. You will see great pressure on all members to perform and to reach agreement on some legislation."
Linda DiVall, a Republican pollster, said: "Obviously, we've suffered a short-term hit in party perceptions. But my sense is that once we get beyond impeachment, with an agenda that appeals to the public, we'll be all right."
And Gary Jacobson, a University of California-San Diego professor, said, "I see no long-term damage to the institution of Congress, unless they just continue to engage in conflict."
Like Congress, the press has seen its reputation battered during the past year. And once again, the scholars think the impeachment saga brought out tendencies that had been building for a long time.
Marvin Kalb, a former television correspondent who now teaches at Harvard, said: "The reputation of news organizations had begun to suffer well before Monica came aboard. But the lines have dipped more precipitously with the scramble of traditional news organizations to hold off the challenge of these new outlets – cable talk programs, 24-hour news, the Internet."
Tom Rosenstiel, a former Los Angeles Times reporter who heads a foundation-funded project for improving journalism, said: "The public resents what it sees as an increasing rush to judgment by the press – unprecedented levels of speculation, punditry and commentary on this story. I think the public also has the impression there's been an obsessive focus on this story, to the exclusion of other topics."
Rosenstiel said he saw two other effects on the press itself – both damaging. With the multiplication of information channels, "the sources who try to use the press have gained in strength and are more able to manipulate the coverage." And, he said, with news being delivered in real time, "We seem to be eroding our own authority as a decoder of events."
Tim Russert, head of the NBC News Washington bureau and moderator of "Meet the Press," said, "When the media becomes focused on a story, we may find ourselves driving it, not just reporting it."
He said this story has been particularly difficult, not just because of the sexual content, but because "there has been such hostility between the pro- and anti-Clinton forces, when either side had an opportunity to discredit a report, they did it. A lot of people got banged around. Whether we can recoup, I don't know.
Thomas Patterson, another Harvard professor, while allowing that "this story was impossible to ignore," said the implications for future coverage of politics are uncertain. "I think there will be a pulling back on scandal coverage," he added, "Stories of this kind don't come along very often." His colleague Kalb, on the other hand, said, "I see no incentives that would drive journalism in a different direction. Quite the contrary."
The hardest effect to gauge is the impact on the public. Patterson said, "I think in some ways the one sector that probably has shown the most wisdom in this darn thing is the public. Pretty early on, they put this in a context and made a decision about it and were not about to be led one way or another by what the major institutions were doing."
Polls support his contention, showing a consistent public judgment of disapproval of Clinton's actions but opposition to his being impeached, convicted or removed from office.
But that does not mean the year's experience has not affected public judgments. Trust in government appears to have taken a heavy hit. A poll conducted the last week in January and released Tuesday by the independent Center on Policy Attitudes found only 19 percent of the respondents answering the question, "How much do you trust the government in Washington to do what is right?" by saying "just about always" or "most of the time."
That figure is significantly lower than other polls found late last year on the same question and so far is unconfirmed by other organizations. But all the polls point to erosion of trust, and several social commentators drew a bleak picture of the health of the American democracy.
Sandel, the Harvard professor, said: "The public is frustrated with the inability of the parties to focus on the public questions that matter the most. And after a time, the frustration feeds disillusion. Detachment is driven by an entertainment-driven style of media coverage."
And Don Eberly, director of the Civil Society Project in Harrisburg, Pa., said that culturally, he does not foresee a lowering of national standards. "Once the trial is over," he said, "I think people will focus less on the dreadful impeachment process and the people behind it, and will focus more on the Clinton behavior that brought it about. I think we'll see some morning-after guilt. ... The baby-boom generation continues to show signs of remorse at the way the cultural revolution it brought about has torn the fabric of society."
But Eberly said he was "deeply pessimistic" about the long-term political effects on the public. "I think this is another Vietnam and Watergate that will degrade and divide our politics for years to come. It will further hollow out our institutions. Trust is eroding. Goodwill is gone. I think there is a thick cloud of moral corruption overhanging all our political institutions."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company