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One Senator's Journey

Clinton Acquitted

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  • By Robert G. Kaiser
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, February 13, 1999; Page A29

    The last day of August, 1998, was a lousy day for Bill Clinton. Just two weeks after his disastrous television address confessing an "improper" relationship with Monica Lewinsky, many in the Washington punditocracy were predicting he would have to leave office. The president was about to fly to Moscow on a trip with no evident purpose, save perhaps to get him out of town. And then Joe Lieberman called.

    The junior senator from Connecticut, often described as a friend of Clinton's though he knew better himself, had been unhinged by Clinton's confession. Until then he had chosen – despite, he admitted, suspicions to the contrary – to believe the president's finger-waving denial of any sexual involvement with Lewinsky. The realization that the man he considered a brilliantly successful president had lied and lied elaborately had deeply shaken Joseph Isadore Lieberman, a careful, religious and moralistic man of 56 who is as different personally from Bill Clinton as soup is from nuts.

    On the morning of Aug. 31st, National Public Radio had disclosed that Lieberman was planning to give a speech critical of Clinton. The senator decided he owed the president a phone call.

    "I told him it was going to be a difficult speech for me to give because of my friendship for him, and it was going to be a difficult speech for him to hear, but I just felt it was important that someone who is his friend and who supports him say this," Lieberman recalled much later. How did Clinton respond? Vaguely – Lieberman can no longer remember exactly what the president said.

    So he went forward with the words he had written in his laptop computer while vacationing with his family on Long Island Sound. It was a speech that stung. Rising in the nearly empty Senate chamber on Sept. 3, Lieberman accused Clinton of damaging "our democracy and its moral foundations," said his behavior was "immoral and harmful . . . [and] too consequential for us to walk away and leave the impression for our children today and for our posterity tomorrow that what he acknowledges he did . . . is acceptable behavior for our nation's leader."

    Lieberman's speech created a sensation. In the media and elsewhere, it raised the prospect that, with even his close Democratic friends turning against Clinton, the president who had wriggled out of scores of tight spots before might actually have reached the end.

    Yesterday, Lieberman joined his Democratic colleagues, and a handful of Republicans, in voting to acquit Clinton on both articles of impeachment brought against him by the House of Representatives. He did so, he said, because though Clinton's behavior was deplorable, it did not rise to the status of crimes against the republic, which he considered the founding fathers' standard for impeachment. "Impeachment is not an instrument of protest, or of prosecution, but one of protection, of our country, its people and our democratic ideals," Lieberman said.

    This is the story of Lieberman's odyssey, beginning in late August with his emotional response to Clinton's confession, continuing through a life-changing autumn of new celebrity and new influence among his colleagues, culminating in unsuccessful efforts first to shorten the Senate trial, then to push a censure resolution through the Senate. It is based on almost weekly conversations with Lieberman throughout these months, conducted on the understanding that the information he provided would not be published until Senate deliberations on impeachment had ended.

    Since coming to the Senate ten years ago after service as a state senator and attorney general of Connecticut, Lieberman has made morality a central aspect of his political personality.

    In a Senate speech on American values last July, a month before Clinton's confession, he called for a new balance between tolerance and morality. "We are," he complained, "increasingly unwilling and in some cases incapable of making moral judgments." And he spoke up for the role of religion in politics and government: "We have too often deprived our public life of the best source of better behavior that the human races has – faith in God, and the sense of personal accountability and responsibility that goes with it."

    A Jew in the Senate is no longer a rarity; the current Senate includes 11 Jewish members. But Lieberman is an observant orthodox Jew, which is highly unusual. He keeps as kosher as a public figure can, and he strictly observes the Sabbath, from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday – no telephone calls, no use of motorized vehicles, no nonsense. On the rare occasions when the Senate meets on Saturday, Lieberman takes part, but he walks to work from his home near Georgetown University Hospital.

    The Jewish experience is part of his personality, in private and in politics. His wife Hadassah, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, is also observant. And, Lieberman reports, she can bring an East European Jewish sensibility to discussions of his political activities. For example, she argued against him giving the speech denouncing Clinton's behavior, not because she disagreed with it, but because it wasn't the right thing for a Jewish senator to do. He used a Yiddish word to describe this attitude – "behalten," meaning to hold back, to be cautious, to avoid standing out.

    On a trip to New Jersey in late October, Lieberman invoked another Jewish tradition to explain his decision to criticize Clinton. He told a group of voters that his policies were a product of his experiences, and "part of it, clearly, is the Jewish ethic, and part of that ethic is, the more power you have, the higher the standard you are held to."

    The Sept. 3 speech made front pages from coast to coast; television news gave it extensive coverage. "Clinton's Behavior Immoral, Ally Says" was the headline in the Orange County (Calif.) Register; "Lieberman, a Senate Ally, Blasts Clinton's Behavior," said The Washington Post. E-mails, phone calls and letters flooded Lieberman's office, most of them favorable. "The reaction to it was way beyond what I expected," Lieberman said a few weeks later. He came to realize that he was riding the crest of a giant media wave, a modern phenomenon not imaginable even in the 1970s when he first entered politics.

    The strong expressions of support persuaded him that Americans approve of politicians taking moral positions. "People want you to talk about values," he said.

    He repeatedly saw evidence of that. In Minneapolis, for example, a Democratic activist named Sally Winer gave Lieberman a big hug outside a Democratic fund-raiser in October. "I just want to thank you for making that speech about Clinton," Winer effused at the end of October. "You said just what I was feeling."

    But he had feared his words would seem "unnecessarily judgmental," he said later, adding that "I know from the Bible that only God can judge people." And some critics agreed. "You pompous, sanctimonious jerk," began one e-mail from an angry constituent in Norwalk, Conn.

    Some saw a deeper purpose at work. A senior Republican senator, an admirer of Lieberman, speculated in mid-September that Lieberman had thrashed Clinton to try to help him. This Republican's theory was that by establishing himself as a sort of moral arbiter, Lieberman could come along at a crucial moment later and declare that Clinton's sins, though serious, did not warrant removal from office.

    Asked about this soon afterward, Lieberman demurred. But soon he began to hint that he understood he had helped Clinton. In mid-October he recounted a story a holocaust survivor had told Lieberman's wife in synagogue. The old man recounted how, in a Nazi prison camp, a Jewish guard collaborating with camp authorities might take the initiative to beat up an inmate he knew had displeased the Nazis – but not beat him up too harshly. The Nazis would then leave that person alone, the old man said – so he got a beating, but not as bad a one as he might have gotten. Her husband had done something similar to Clinton, the old man told Hadassah Lieberman.

    Still, he questioned the presumption that he had acted as a close friend of the president. They were political soulmates, he said in one October conversation – two centrist Democrats who had both been president of the Democratic Leadership Council, the moderate faction of the party. They got along well too. But it wasn't "a real friendship," Lieberman said. He really didn't know much about the president's personal feelings, or relations inside the Clinton family.

    On November 3, the Democrats' strong showing in the midterm elections convinced Lieberman (and many others) that Clinton would escape impeachment. A few days later Lieberman was asked: was it reasonable to conclude that Clinton had been saved by two circumstances: 1) Lewinsky had kept, but not cleaned, her blue dress with its DNA evidence, so the president finally had to confess his transgressions with her, and 2) Lieberman's speech showed that Clinton could be sharply chastised without being forced out of office?

    "Could be," he replied.

    After the elections, Lieberman was more forthcoming about the political motivation for his Sept. 3 speech. The president's August confession, he said, was a threat to the Democratic Party. "We had worked so hard," he said, to demonstrate that Democrats had learned "the difference between right and wrong...[and to] re-establish the party's connection to mainstream values.". And because "Clinton himself was at the center of this transformation, I feared that . . . we were in danger as a party."

    "I don't want to be too self-inflating here," he said in one post-election conversation, but he took satisfaction from the fact that a number of his Democratic colleagues who were running for reelection in 1998 had actually urged him to speak out about Clinton even earlier than he had. He recalled that Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and Harry M. Reid (Nev.) both thanked him for making their campaigns easier. Boxer told him she began to tell voters in California, "I agree with Joe Lieberman," and it seemed to help.

    Despite the post-election euphoria, however, Lieberman realized in early December that it was possible, even likely, that the House would actually vote to impeach Clinton. "I have to say," he marveled after consulting with a number of pessimistic House Democrats during a Dec. 8 trip to Tennessee for the funeral of Albert Gore Sr., "I never really expected to get to this."

    After the House had voted two articles of impeachment on Dec. 19, Lieberman began consulting with colleagues, mostly Republicans. Why? "Because I have a sense where Democrats are going," he answered at the time, but he wasn't sure about Republicans. And, "immodestly," he said: "I have developed both personal friendships and credibility with Republicans that can help now."

    His most fruitful conversations were with Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), an old friend from the 1970s, when both men were attorneys general of their states. They agreed it would be useful to find a way to demonstrate that there was nothing close to 67 votes in the Senate for convicting Clinton. Once that fact was clear, they thought – a "foolishly naive" idea, Lieberman said later – the Senate could adjourn the trial quickly and resume the nation's business.

    Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) told Lieberman he knew of his conversations with Republicans, and approved of them. "I think you know that Slade Gorton and I are close," Lott said – which Lieberman interpreted as a signal that Lott approved of the approach they were taking. Gorton reported that Lott and other members of the Senate Republican leadership seemed supportive. By late December several press reports had appeared describing their plan as Lott's, which didn't upset Gorton and Lieberman.

    But these reports did upset Rep. Henry J. Hyde (D-Ill.). He wrote an angry letter to Lott on Dec. 30 complaining about any plan that would cut short a full trial. Soon afterward, Gorton's staff told Lieberman's staff the plan wasn't going to work. At the very least, they would have to allow for the calling of some witnesses.

    When the Senate convened on Jan. 5, Lott and the Democratic leader, Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), decided they needed a bipartisan committee of six senators to debrief both the House managers and President Clinton's lawyers to see what advance agreements could be reached about the conduct of the trial. Daschle named Lieberman to the committee with Joseph Biden (Del.) and Carl Levin (Mich.). Lott chose Pete V. Domenici (N.M.), Ted Stevens (Alaska) and Fred Thompson (Tenn.). Lieberman was heartened by these choices, noting that Domenici and Stevens, particularly, were tough old timers who wouldn't be pushed around by the House.

    In fact, Domenici startled Lieberman when he told the House managers it was clear the Senate did not have 67 votes to convict the president. When the House members said they might want to call as many as 18 witnesses, Stevens began reciting all the national and global problems that needed the Senate's attention. Soon the House members were offering concessions. They promised that if Monica Lewinsky were called as a witness, they would not ask her anything about sex. "They were very deferential," Lieberman remembered.

    The trial began. Lieberman was heartened that it seemed possible to keep it under control. And he was impressed by the argumentation from both House managers and Clinton's lawyers in the first week. The managers, he said, reminded him how uncomfortable he was with Clinton's behavior. And Clinton's team, particularly his former colleague Dale Bumpers, reminded him how serious the constitutional issues were, and how high the bar should be for convicting a sitting president.

    When partisanship intensified over the issue of calling witnesses, Lieberman and Gorton came up with another plan for a speedy exit from the trial, but this one also foundered. Then followed a vote on a motion from Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) to dismiss the charges. When Lieberman decided to vote for it, he considered this his final decision on the impeachment issue. He drafted and redrafted an explanation for his vote – "I agitated about it" – though it eventually got almost no public attention.In this statement Lieberman concluded that Clinton may have committed a crime, but not a high crime worthy of impeachment.

    Throughout, Lieberman tried to keep alive the idea of a strong censure of Clinton, an idea he had first implicitly proposed on Sept. 3. His interest in leaving some kind of official record of Senate disapproval of the president's behavior led him to collaborate with Republicans who toyed with some kind of "findings of fact" that would spell out Senate sentiments on the president's transgressions even as he was acquitted of the impeachment charges. Most other Democrats had no interest in such findings, seeing them as a backdoor attempt to find Clinton guilty when the Republicans couldn't muster the votes to actually convict.

    When the findings foundered, he joined Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in pressing for a censure motion after the acquittal vote. They were to hold a news conference yesterday after the Senate's votes on this subject. But a bomb scare forced an evacuation of the Capitol and the press conference never occurred. By that time, the censure idea was dead, anyway.

    Back in his office in the Hart office building yesterday afternoon, Lieberman described his last conversation with Clinton, nine days earlier on the 3rd of February. He had called the president to convey concerns that several Republican senators had raised with Lieberman – Republicans he considered likely to vote ultimately to acquit Clinton. They were nervous that, once the voting was done, the President might do something that could be interpreted as celebrating.

    Clinton invited Lieberman over to the White House. He found the president in a double-breasted suit and yellow necktie in his office in the White House residence at 8:45 in the evening, reading Henry Mayer's new biography of the 19th Century abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Clinton was in a grim mood.

    Lieberman told him about the Republicans' concerns that he might celebrate after acquittal. "He understands the consequences of this episode," Lieberman recalled later of the session. "He has this deep sense of history – he reads biography constantly. I think it's his favorite form of relaxation. And he understands what this has done to his biographies."

    And what has Lieberman done, by taking such an active role in this episode, to his biography? "I'm going to leave that to others," he answered yesterday. "There's no question that something changed when I gave that speech," he acknowledged.

    What if Al Gore concludes that a good way to distance himself from the personal transgressions of Bill Clinton in the 2000 presidential race would be to pick Joe Lieberman as his running mate?

    "Who suggested that?" Lieberman said with a big grin. "Send him to Al Gore at once!" He seemed to be joking, but not entirely.


    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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