President Imperiled as Never Before
By Dan Balz
If President Clinton has proven anything in his political career, it is that he can survive wounds that would be fatal to other politicians. But the newest allegations of sexual misconduct and possible obstruction of justice represent the most perilous charges yet lodged against him, analysts across the political spectrum said yesterday.
The stakes are almost as large for Starr, whom Clinton allies long have branded as a partisan antagonist who is determined to find something to bring down the president. The credibility of his entire investigation could be called into question on the basis of what happens with these charges.
An understanding of what faces both sides brought rare silence to much of the political community in Washington yesterday. But among those few who ventured into public view, there was agreement on the stakes involved.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) issued a carefully worded statement saying the "very serious allegations . . . need a thorough investigation." But in a television interview with CNN, he said "impeachment might very well be an option" if the charges are proven.
Former White House official George Stephanopoulos agreed. "If they're true, they're not only politically damaging, but could lead to impeachment proceedings," he said on ABC's "Good Morning America."
Most others White House aides, Republican congressional leaders, lobbyists and political operatives from both parties refused to talk for the record. Republicans, for once, saw no reason to jump into the middle of the controversy. "If we try to politicize it, it will look political," said a former Republican congressional aide.
Democrats, not knowing whether the allegations were true, were in no mood either to defend the president or attack the independent counsel. "Our hope is it goes away," a Democratic aide on Capitol Hill said nervously.
Mostly, people waited and watched. But privately, partisans on both sides agreed that the charges that Clinton conducted a sexual affair with a young White House aide and then encouraged her to deny the relationship to lawyers in the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit were potentially far more serious than anything the president has faced.
Clinton has repeatedly demonstrated his political resilience, starting early in 1992 when he was confronted by charges that he carried on a long-running affair with Gennifer Flowers and that he had evaded the draft during the Vietnam War. At a time when many Washington politicians, even Democrats, said his candidacy was dead, the former Arkansas governor fought back to win his party's nomination and eventually the White House.
He then promised "the most ethical administration in history," only to see a succession of Cabinet officers indicted or investigated. Starr's investigation has ranged through old land deals in Arkansas, the suicide of assistant White House counsel Vincent Foster and controversies over missing law firm billing records and mishandled FBI files, but so far has made no charge against the president or Hillary Rodham Clinton. The Justice Department continues to examine campaign finance abuses from 1996.
But the multiple controversies have had little effect on the president's popularity. Last Saturday, Clinton gave a deposition in the Paula Jones case, making him the first president to testify as a defendant in a legal case. Despite intense media coverage of the event, polls taken at the time show that his job approval rating remains at it peak.
"It's not that people don't pay attention to these things," said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, one of the few consultants willing to speak for the record yesterday. "People pay attention and are willing to hold their judgment in abeyance until the facts are in. While the public does not give the president a 100 percent vote of confidence in terms of his personal character, people have been skeptical about specific allegations about him and willing to sort of separate public behavior from private behavior."
But other Democratic allies of the president worried privately that aspects of the new allegations heightened the danger for Clinton. First is that the allegations involve conduct as president. Second is the fact that the sexual misconduct involves a young woman, Monica Lewinsky, who was on the White House staff. And finally, charges that Clinton or his friend, lawyer Vernon E. Jordan Jr., may have urged Lewinsky to deny the relationship, if true, represent illegal acts.
But if Clinton and the White House squirmed yesterday under the media and legal assault over the new charges, Starr and his investigators face equally difficult days ahead.
Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution analyst who has often been critical of the president, said that Starr had no apparent business stepping into the middle of the new allegations and that there was an ongoing legal case that should deal with it. "It's starting to strike me that there really are people who are trying to bring down the president," Hess said.
Staff writer Helen Dewar contributed to this report.
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