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  • By Thomas B. Edsall
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, December 15, 1998; Page A18

    As recently as a year ago, they were far out on the fringes of politics, a small band of conservatives convinced that Bill Clinton is so corrupt and venal that he ought to be impeached.

    But a group once viewed warily even on the right helped launch a groundswell of Republican support for impeaching a president for the first time in 120 years.

    These early impeachment activists range from Robert L. Bartley, editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, to Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.), one of Clinton's strongest critics on the House Judiciary Committee, to the leaders of the John Birch Society, an organization hearkening back to the anti-communist 1950s when its leader described Dwight D. Eisenhower as a Soviet agent.

    Together, their success is a demonstration of how a determined and ideologically committed group can change the course of history, keeping on the public agenda an issue that had little popular support and that, in this case, few of Clinton's political adversaries were willing to explore with any enthusiasm until recently.

    Long before January, when the allegations about Clinton's relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky became public and precipitated the impeachment proceedings, this group had begun sustained inquiries into allegations that Clinton was involved in drug smuggling, that White House aide Vincent W. Foster Jr. was murdered, that Clinton's Arkansas gubernatorial campaigns were financed illegally, and that the Clintons profited from and then covered up the Whitewater land deal.

    While none of those charges has provided a basis for impeachment, two themes that ran through all the early allegations -- the conviction that Clinton lies and abuses the powers of office -- have survived to form the core of the case against the president that the House will vote on later this week.

    Of all the early advocates of impeachment, none took a higher risk strategy than Barr, the Georgia Republican, who was elected in 1994. More than any other member of the House, Barr has thrived on taking up controversial issues, charging forward into terrain few of his colleagues dared explore.

    Barr earned his conservative stripes by forcing a reluctant House leadership to vote on a futile bid to repeal the assault weapons ban, and then led the charge against legalizing homosexual marriages. More recently, he succeeded in pushing legislation effectively barring a Washington, D.C., referendum on the medical use of marijuana.

    On Nov. 5, 1997, Barr introduced legislation calling for an impeachment inquiry of Clinton based on violations of campaign finance laws, over the objections of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), both of whom saw the legislation as premature and likely to make the GOP look ridiculous.

    In the case of impeachment, Barr argued that an inquiry was warranted on limited evidence.

    "More than any other other single reason was the [October 1997] appearance of the attorney general [Janet Reno] before the Judiciary Committee . . . " he told the Atlanta Constitution. "She made it absolutely clear -- and subsequent events have borne this out -- that this Department of Justice was not really interested in getting to the bottom of this fund-raising scandal involving this administration. It left me with the conclusion that the impeachment route . . . was the only way the people of this country could get to the bottom of these serious scandals."

    In the past year, Barr has appeared frequently on television and pressed the case for impeachment in speeches and appearances before conservative groups, including John Birch chapters in Los Angeles and California, and the Council of Conservative Citizens, which promotes the preservation of the white race and views intermarriage as genocide. Barr disassociated himself from the CCC only after newspaper inquiries were made about his appearance.

    As impeachment becomes increasingly possible, some of its early proponents sound more ambivalent than triumphant.

    "My personal reaction is rather subdued, perhaps strangely. . . . There's a sensation of watching your own tragic predictions come true," said Bartley.

    Bartley has been surprised by Clinton's political resilience but thinks Clinton may be close to the end of his string.

    "I didn't think the electorate would give him a second term; obviously I was wrong. I've always said that you don't impeach a president without something approaching the passion of Vietnam. But watching the Friday scene with his speech and the [Judiciary] Committee voting, I suddenly felt that removal from office was no longer inconceivable."

    "It's not as much fun to be right as I thought, it's kind of frightening to be right," said R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., editor-in-chief of the American Spectator, which has spent millions of dollars chasing down allegations of Arkansas land deals, drug smuggling, payoffs, sex and cover-ups.

    Tyrrell contended that "this White House took every shot they could at us and a few old friends fell by the wayside." But, he argued, he and the Spectator staff are vindicated by the findings in the current impeachment proceedings.

    "If you look at the Monica Lewinsky scandal, A.) it would not be aired were it not for Paula [Jones] being named in the [Spectator's] Troopergate story, and B.), which is more momentous, all the elements of the Troopergate story were in the Lewinsky story, save one, lying under oath. Otherwise, it had sex with employees, jobs offered for sex and silence, misuse of state property, and in the end, a massive abuse of power."

    One early impeachment advocate who will be watching the House proceedings closely is Robert H. Bork, whose nomination to the Supreme Court was defeated by a concerted liberal assault.

    "It's not a question of vindication. I think it [his early call for impeachment] was right and, whether or not it happens, I will still think I was right."

    Bork said he could not remember exactly when he came out for impeachment. "I just spoke out," he said. "I think on a television show, maybe Larry King." In addition, he said, he could not remember what specifically prompted him to decide that impeachment was appropriate. "I wish I could recall what I was concerned with, but I can't at the moment." Generally, he said, he was deeply disturbed by what he saw as Clinton's "persistent lying about everything."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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