Fearing that a controversy over his sexual past would undercut his power and tear apart his family, Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) yesterday told an astounded House he will not assume the speakership he claimed last month but would instead resign from Congress next year.
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President Bill Clinton was impeached on Dec. 19, 1998.
Over what? Clinton was impeached for lying under oath and obstructing justice to cover up an Oval Office affair with Monica Lewinsky, an intern. Clinton’s affair and its cover-up was investigated as part of a four-year probe led by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr.
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But the chamber suddenly fell silent as the congressman revealed that he would end his own political career. “I believe I had it in me to do a fine job,” Livingston said. “But I cannot do that job or be the kind of leader that I would like to be under current circumstances.”
As he strode from the podium, members from both sides of the aisle rose in ovation.
Even as the House began voting articles of impeachment, Livingston’s announcement precipitated an immediate leadership scramble among Republicans. Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), the chief deputy majority whip, swiftly emerged as the leading contender for speaker, with the backing of virtually every outgoing and future leader.
In a year of bizarre political turmoil, the spectacle of a speaker-designate resigning on the same day the House voted to impeach the president over alleged lies in sworn testimony about sex with an intern left even the most seasoned veterans gaping and shaken.
“How many more good people are going to be destroyed next by Christmas?” asked Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), a friend of Livingston’s, fighting back tears. “What are we going to do? Line them all up and mow them down?”
Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.) added: “This is all so overwhelming. There have been so many bombshells you can barely turn your back.”
Livington made his decision early yesterday, after a long night of soul-searching and consultation with his wife of 33 years, Bonnie. It was his wife who had insisted that he disclose his past extramarital affairs on Thursday, after learning that Hustler magazine was preparing an expose about Livingston and other members of Congress.
At the heart of his decision was both political calculation and personal concern, according to associates and aides. Even before his official election as speaker by the incoming House, Livingston’s support among Republicans had begun to erode because of outrage among a handful of social conservatives and moderates over his sexual revelations.
Reps. Donald Manzullo (R-Ill.) and Steve Largent (R-Okla.), both committed religious conservatives, were among the most outspoken critics, while a few prominent moderates said privately that they were upset because Livingston hadn’t disclosed the affairs before he was picked to succeed outgoing Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). With Republicans holding a majority edge over the Democrats of only six seats in the incoming House, Livingston would have lived in constant fear of losing a handful of defectors.
“He knew some members were in a quandary over the moral authority associated with him,” said Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), a Livingston backer. “There were discussions underway [Friday] night on who might be prepared to step in as speaker.”
But Livingston was less concerned about his diminished support than the corrosive effect the controversy was having on his marriage, which he said had barely survived his past indiscretions. His wife insisted that he resign the speakership to avoid more embarrassment and he complied, according to several GOP lawmakers.
“What he did today was as much for [his wife] as for him and his country,” said Rep. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-La.), a close friend. “His wife was in agony.”
“He made some mistakes in his life that came back to bite him and he did the honorable thing,” said Mark C. Corallo, Livingston’s press secretary. “He could have hung on as speaker, but who wants to hang on?”
Livingston, 55, a former federal prosecutor and until recently the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, avoided reporters’ questions other than to say: “I just woke up this morning and it seemed like a good thing to do. . . . I feel great.”
Livingston’s announcement came with no warning – many of his closest friends and longtime aides said they were caught by surprise – and left the House in turmoil less than three weeks before the 106th Congress is scheduled to take office. As one indication of the growing instability of the office, the late Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) was the last person to voluntarily retire from the speakership, in 1988. Since then, four others – Democrats Jim Wright (Tex.) and Thomas Foley (Wash.), and Republicans Gingrich and Livingston – were either forced out or lost their election.
Even as they prepared to cast historic impeachment votes, most House members struggled with their emotions and shock over Livingston’s abrupt resignation.
Rep. Sue W. Kelly (N.Y.) said she was one of many GOP members who had no prior warning that Livingston was preparing to step down. As it dawned on them that his remarks were leading to that announcement, she said, “I heard people around me saying, ‘Oh, God, Bob, don’t do this’ and ‘Bob, no.’”
Like a family in mourning, members from both sides of the aisle approached Livingston on the floor or in the Appropriations Committee office a few steps from the House floor to offer words of support, pats on the back and hugs.
“It was a complete surprise,” said Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), a senior member of the Appropriations Committee. “I knew he was hurt and was racked by the story. But if there’s one thing about Livingston, he’s decisive. He takes a lot of advice from us, but he holds his own counsel.”
Rep. Richard H. Baker, a fellow Louisiana Republican, had no knowledge of Livingston’s personal difficulties. But he had issued a warning when his colleague first broached the topic of running for speaker early this year. “I told him I thought political forces would make his life hell and he would regret every day of his speakership for personal reasons, but I hope for the sake of our country and our Congress he would run,” Baker recalled. “I had no idea they would go this far.”
“We are not perfect people. We are all sinners,” said retiring Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), another committee member who has known Livingston for years. “But that should not destroy our ability to lead. No one should be driven from office by the kind of position Mr. Livingston was put in. I think it’s a terrible result.”
Livingston was first elected to Congress in a 1977 special election and rose to power as a member of the House Appropriations Committee. He was handpicked by Gingrich to become committee chairman after the GOP takeover in 1994, and he quickly locked up GOP support for his bid for the speakership when Gingrich announced that he would resign after the Republicans’ dismal showing in last month’s elections.
While many had high hopes that Livingston, an affable and highly popular lawmaker, would lead the House into a new era of comity, his relations with Democrats quickly soured when he recently sided with conservatives in blocking a House vote on censure as an alternative to Clinton’s impeachment.
Tension turned to crisis Thursday evening when Livingston announced to his fellow Republicans that he had occasionally “strayed from my marriage” after learning that Hustler magazine was preparing an article reporting that he had had several extramarital relationships.
“To my colleagues, my friends and most especially my wife and family, I have hurt you all deeply and I beg your forgiveness,” an emotional Livingston said on the House floor.
“I thank my constituents for the opportunity to serve them,” he added. “I hope they will not think badly of me for leaving.”
Staff writers Ceci Connolly, Lois Romano, George Hager, Amy Goldstein, Charles Babcock and Dan Morgan contributed to this report.