Q&A With Juliet Eilperin
Good afternoon and welcome to "Levey Live." I'm Washington Post columnist Bob Levey, your host.
"Levey Live" appears each Tuesday from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern time. It's a live, moderated discussion that offers washingtonpost.com users the chance to talk directly to major newsmakers and key Washington Post reporters and editors.
Our guest today is Juliet Eilperin, who covers Capitol Hill for The Post. She has been covering The Starr Report since it landed on the Hill ten days ago.
You may submit your questions now.
Laurel, Md: It appears unlikely that Clinton will be impeached. What is the most severe type of censure that can be imposed upon him by Congress? Also, is it likely Starr will prosecute Clinton after he leaves office on the charges of perjury, witness tampering and obstruction?
Juliet Eilperin: The idea of censure, which several Democrats have suggested as an alternative to impeachment, has no real legal impact on the president. Some lawmakers have proposed fining the president for the $4.4 million Starr and his attorneys spent investigating the charges that Clinton had an affair with Lewinsky. Other than that, Congress would have to impeach the president in order to punish him.
Bob Levey: My pet theory: The scandal produces only one consistent result. Americans are so disgusted that they fail to show up at the polls in November. That means turnout plummets and incumbents sail to re-election. Am I on the mark?
Juliet Eilperin: It certainly looks that way. As Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) just told me this morning, Americans "think all politicians are liars." Nothing in this scandal appears to have boosted the public's confidence in Congress or the presiden. Most incumbent members are confident of reelection-with the exception of some Democrats who fear a Clinton backlash.
Guatemala City, Guatemala:
Juliet I have been very impressed with your Congressional coverage. Here's my question. What do you think would be the social and political fall-out in the US if Congress decided that some lies are impeachable offenses (such as those related to military endeavors and other federal decisions) while other lies (such as whom you let play with a cigar) are not? Do you think the US Congress and most Americans would be willing to publicly distinguish the difference between certain lies?
Juliet Eilperin: Hey Laura, I wish I could see some of the articles you're writing in Guatemala. On the question of lies, lawmakers have yet to indicate whether certain lies threaten our constitutional system of government, which is what many people believe should constitute grounds for impeachment, while others do not. This is really the key question in this debate, and hopefully Congress will be able to move beyond lurid sexual descriptions and get to this constitutional question.
Bob Levey: More about the backlash you mentioned a minute ago: I can't for the life of me understand why a voter would blame a Democratic Congressional candidate for Bill Clinton's behavior. It's not as if voters believe that ALL Democrats have affairs with interns. So why are the Democrats so worried?
Juliet Eilperin: I wish I understood voters better sometimes, but both GOP and Democratic strategists have noticed that the scandal has started to hurt some Democratic candidates in key races. It's odd, because most lawmakers have yet to weigh in on the question through a vote yet, aside from agreeing to release Starr's report to the public. Still, constituents seem to think that many Democrats have not been aggressive enough in decrying Clinton's misdeeds.
In your opinion, how bad must it get and what events must occur before President Clinton and his closest advisors seriously consider resignation? Will Clinton rely primarily on the polls or
Juliet Eilperin: Any new revelations of wrongdoing will surely play a key role in convincing Clinton to resign. Aside from that, if the new evidence that has emerged hurts his poll numbers, White House officials may feel Clinton has no choice but to leave. The most important poll comes in November, of course. If voters reject Democrats en masse, lawmakers may decide they have to remove Clinton from office in order to boost their own political fortunes for the 2000 presidential and congressional elections.
Bob Levey: I'm fascinated by the role Newt Gingrich is playing in all this. He was the meanest junkyard dog of all in 1995. Now he seems almost statesmanlike. Is this real or Memorex?
Juliet Eilperin: Gingrich has really controlled himself during the past few months, and is reaping the rewards of staying quiet. In private GOP meetings he has been more open, calling Clinton's account of his relationship with Lewinsky "misogynist." At some point, of course, Newt may pipe up and destroy this statesmanlike image. For the moment, however, he's managing the situation quite well.
Annandale, VA: The Starr investigation went from Whitewater to Travelgate and on to Paula Jones. After all this time, why was there nothing else in the Starr report to pin on the President other than possibly lying about an adulterous affair? Do you think, as the President charges, that his enemies were out to get him at any cost?
Juliet Eilperin: Clearly, certain factions like the Paula Jones lawyers and Starr's office were intent on proving Clinton had done wrong. On the other hand, no one put a gun to Clinton's head and told him he had to have an affair with a White House intern, and then later mislead the public about it. I'm not a big fan of conspiracy theories, and one of the most interesting things about this case is that if Lewinsky had never confided in Linda Tripp, this may never have become public. It demonstrates how may factors were at work in this.
Bob Levey: Democratic members of Congress have been mostly sad and circumspect in front of the TV cameras. But privately, they have to be furious. Are they? What are they saying?
Juliet Eilperin: Of course they are. Though many Democrats told me off the record in the past several months that they thought Clinton had a relationship with Lewinsky, it's somehow much more hurtful to have him confess it. They feel as if they are being hammered in an election for the second time in a row because of Clinton, since revelations about campaign finance helped hurt them in the polls in 1996. No they have little chance of regaining the House this fall-it's enough to make anyone peevish. The question is, are they mad enough to throw him out?
Herndon, VA: JFK apparently had many sexual liaisons in the White House. Do you think the nation is better served now that in the 90s a president is asked, yes or no, did you receive oral sex from an intern? Would we have been better off in the 60s if we had known then what we now know about Kennedy?
Juliet Eilperin: It's hard to say. I believe the public can make its best political judgements about a person when they know all the facts. Some lawmakers like Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.) argue that voters knew Clinton was unfaithful in both 1992 and 1996, and we should take that into account when weighing impeachment. If the media goes too far in holding politicians accountable for any personal misstep, however, voters may become completely alientated. That's the real danger here.
Bob Levey: Republicans Henry Hyde and Helen Chenoweth have admitted extracurricular affairs. Will this have any effect on the possibility of impeachment? Will it help Clinton in any way?
Juliet Eilperin: I don't think so, since Hyde is such a popular figure on the Hill. These kinds of revelations strengthen the convictions of Clinton's allies, but they don't do much to win over his critics.
Bethesda, Maryland: When covering the Starr report or other such tomes of a sensitive nature, what process to you and the editor gods go through to determine what anonymous source and sexually explicit materials gets into print? How much input do the reporters have on this subjects? Have you ever written anything you're not totally comfortable with at the request of higher ups
Juliet Eilperin: I do have some input, though I let the top editors decide what is proper for our readers. The most important question for me is how relevant this sexual detail is to the charges against Clinton, as well as to the current political climate on the Hill. I have to admit that I was embarrassed to discuss Monica Lewinsky's orgasms with a lawmaker the other day. it was definitely the low point of my journalistic career.
Half an hour remaining in our discussion of the Clinton scandal with Washington Post congressional reporter Juliet Eilperin.
Bob Levey: Black members of the House (all Democrats) have been uniformly supportive of President Clinton. Why? And do you think that will change if the president's support from other Democrats appears to be fraying?
Juliet Eilperin: In a word, they have safe districts. Also, many black members are sensitive to the fact that the criminal justice system can be biased against defendants, and some of them have been scrutinized for their own conduct by federal prosecutors. Their constitutents also tend to be more supportive of Clinton, so it only makes sense that they would speak out in favor of him. It's important not to underestimate this bloc of the Democratic Caucus in the coming months, along with hispanic members.
ST PAUL MN:
What changes do you think Congress will make to the O.I.C. in the next few years?
Juliet Eilperin: None of these changes will have any impact on Congress' handling of the Starr report, but many lawmakers have criticized the free rein of the independent counsel over the past few years. It's hard to predict what will happen, but Congress could put some limits on the OIC when they choose to reauthorize the law which governs it.
Bob Levey: John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on Judiciary, had a reputation as a very loose cannon when I covered Capitol Hill (back in prehistoric times). What's his cannon rating now? Is he the man to rescue Bill Clinton's presidency?
Juliet Eilperin: Well, maybe the question should be can the cadre of lawyers he hired, including veteran defense attorney Abbe Lowell and chief counsel Julian Epstein, save Clinton. He remains Clinton's most vocal defender on the Hill, albeit an unpredictable one. If he starts wavering, Clinton should forget about staying on much longer.
Most foreign press wonders why an end has not been made to the whole Clinton matter - SlaughterGate is the lastest term for the scandal. With the general disgust of the whole thing from the American public, with concern over the damage it is doing internationally, and with the increasing opinion that CLinton's bedroom antics are not impeachable, why doesn't Congress just end it? Why are they continuing to drag it out?
Juliet Eilperin: While members look at polls and care about what the public thinks, many feel strongly about their constitutional duties as well. Right now there are a number of members, particularly on the House Judiciary Committee, who feel they cannot sweep these allegations under the rug without investigating them. It's likely that the House will vote on whether to start a formal impeachment inquiry before mid-October in order to move the process along, rather than just abandon it altogether.
Bob Levey: If Bill Clinton had any solid friends among Democrats on the Hill, he might not be (or seem) so worried. Why doesn't he have Congressional friends?
Juliet Eilperin: Clinton has just betrayed the Democrats, particularly on the House side, too many times for them to like him. Congressional Democrats are more liberal than he is, and he has also flip-flopped on a number of issues. The fact is they don't trust him politically, and his recent behavior has done nothing to boost their confidence in him.
Washington DC: Juliet: Is anything at all being done in Congress (i.e. business as usual) as this continues ...? Jenny
Juliet Eilperin: Actually, the House is voting on a few measures this week, including tax cuts and a measure granting more visas to high-tech workers. Congress needs to approve 13 spending bills before it adjourns to keep the government running, and that's where you'll see the real action in the next few weeks. But lawmakers are preoccupied with the scandal, and since neither side feels like compromising at the moment you may not see significant legislation for the rest of the year.
Juliet Eilperin: I think the mainstream press is very wary of setting new precedents concerning politicians' personal lives. But it's true that calling the affair a "youthful indescretion" seems as strained as Clinton's description of sexual relations. The fact is Hyde was never asked about this affair under oath and he's been careful about commenting on Clinton's conduct, so he doesn't look as much like a hypocrite, which is often the standard journalists use in judging these matters.
Bob Levey: Before the Clinton grand jury tape was released, there was a lot of noise from Democrats about how it would be used in campaign commercials this fall. But now that the tape has proven to be mostly a snooze, do you think clips of it will be used in November?
Juliet Eilperin: The White House and its allies did a good job of hyping the tape, which then made it seem tame in comparison. From what I saw, it doesn't appear to seem like good fodder for commercials. Instead, I think consultants will rely on clips showing a Democratic candidate with the president at some fundraiser or public function to convey the message that they are tied to Clinton.
Juliet Eilperin: Nice to hear from you by the way-e-mail me sometime at the Post and tell me what you're doing. As for the journalistic threshold when it comes to public figures, I think they're going to be held to a higher standard from now on in the way Gary Hart's affair with Donna Rice changed the political landscape. I don't think reporters will latch on to any private indescretions-there will have to be some link between this behavior and their public stands, such as how they speak about family values.
Bob Levey: Gov. Parris Glendening of Maryland created a minor stir a few days ago when he un-invited President Clinton from a scheduled campaign appearance. Do you expect other Democratic candidates (especially those on the Hill) to do anything similar?
Juliet Eilperin: This is already happening. Democrats need Clinton to appear with them in order to fill up their war chests, but don't want the public to resent them for it. GOP candidates face this same dilemma with Gingrich, but the Republican base tends to adore the speaker, so they can often justify such an appearance. I would expect many Democrats will ask Hillary Clinton or Al Gore to come instead of Clinton now.
Baltimore, MD: Can there be no decisions made without everything being dumped on the public to gauge the mood of the nation? Ever since we were treated to the O.J. Simpson "high speed chase", there seems to be a presumption that we - the people - must see and know everything - this constant second-guessing of everyone's motives is bringing this country to a frightening level of inertia. Do you have any sense of this in Washington?
Juliet Eilperin: Frankly, lawmakers seem scared of holding anything back. it's a little strange, when you consider how much they moan about the proliferation of pornography on the Internet. If the public indicates they're furious about this dumping of information, lawmakers will contain themselves. If not, prepare for another load of evidence to come your way next week.
Bob Levey: The public is so cynical about this story that I'd hate to be a Republican leader. How can a Republican press ahead with the inquiry without seeming viciously, overarchingly partisan?
Juliet Eilperin: Republicans are very concerned about this, and the problem is that many of them simply have a different standard than Democrats when it comes to what constitutes an impeachable offense. Given that most of the public dislikes how Starr has handled his job, GOP members have to be careful about appearing judicious in the months ahead.
Rockville, MD: The Democrats tried to stop Clarence Thomas nomination over sexual comments and forced Senator Packwood from office over his personal sexual behavior. Clinton has done far, far worse by having the affair and committing perjury, abuse of power, and obstruction of justice to cover it up. How can the Democrats on the Hill honestly justify holding Clinton to a much lower standard to stay in office in light of such hypocasy?
Juliet Eilperin: It's a good question, and I think a lot of Democrats are struggling with this. The problem facing them is that many think it takes a considerable amount of wrongdoing to remove a president from office and undo a national election, but that inevitably leads to the charge that you're holding Clinton to a lower standard than a lawmaker or a federal judge.
Bob Levey: The President has tried to round up some former members of Congress to plead his case there. Not too many takers yet--and certainly no high-profile takers. Are the rats avoiding the sinking ship?
Juliet Eilperin: The fact is Clinton doesn't have many former friends from the Hill either. In any case, what these ex-members would say to their colleagues doesn't make much difference at this point. All that matters is what the public thinks, and how compelling is the evidence the House Judiciary Committee presents at the end of this process.
MC Lean Va: What do think of the stock market shooting up immediately after the Starr report was finished transmitted. Is this a barometer of how people feel. Lets get on with the business of the United States.
Juliet Eilperin: I wish I did understand the stock market. From what I can tell, Wall Street hates uncertainty, which is why it fell yesterday after more evidence was released. Once the House (and possibly the Senate) passes judgement, this shouldn't be as much of a fact in the financial markets.
Bob Levey: Bottom line: Wouldn't it be pretty hard for Judiciary NOT to go forward at this point? The momentum is there. So is plenty of evidence. Is there any way it would come screeching to a halt now (or soon)?
Juliet Eilperin: It would be hard to stop it at this point because so many Republicans on the panel have said perjury constitutes an impeachable offense. It's fair to say that a lot of Democrats don't want to appear obstructionist, which is another reason the House might approve a formal impeachment inquiry next month.
Juliet Eilperin: While a shutdown was looking more likely a few months ago, both Democrats and Republicans want to get out of town and campaign this month. Still, no one can predict how the scandal will influence Clinton's relationship with Congress.
That's it for today. Thanks to Washington Post Staff Writer Juliet Eilperin. Be sure to join us next Tuesday when our guest will be the president of the National Organization for Women, Patricia Ireland.