Posted on September 21, 1998 in Washington Watch

The Independent Counsel’s (IC) report on the President’s scandal hit Washington like a hurricane last week–and the storm is not over yet. In fact, once Congress begins its inquiry into the impeachment of the President, the upheaval may go on for months.

While the damage that this situation has done to the President and the nation is evident, its longer-term and broader impact is not yet clear. This is a dangerous time for the world’s superpower to be turned inward in a domestic partisan conflict. The world’s economic health is being threatened by the financial crisis in Asia and the continued instability of Russia. At the same time any one of a half-dozen world hot spots could explode into a major problem testing the ability of the United States to provide world leadership.

It would be ideal if the matter of the scandal could be quickly resolved, but it appears that this will not be the case. Ken Starr, the IC, is determined to go forward with the fruits of his four-year and $40 million inquiry. Likewise, President Clinton is a determined fighter. Whenever he has been down in his long political career, he displays a fierce resolve to fight back. And Congress is so divided on partisan lines that it appears impossible for Republicans not to carry forward this inquiry especially if they believe it will help their election efforts in November.

The moment Starr delivered his report to the Congress, the battle was engaged. It was ironic that at the very moment that Congress was debating whether to make public the sordid details of Starr’s report, the President was delivering his most profound apology to a group of clergy, with whom he was having breakfast. The President’s confession that he “sinned” and “lied” was carried live on network television.

Commentators differed in their assessment of the President’s apology. Some said it was “too little too late”–others felt that it was sincere and significant. This debate was, however, overshadowed, after only a few hours, by the decision of the Congress to make all of the Starr report public. The debate within the congressional committee responsible for this decision was extraordinarily partisan. Democrats were insisting, at the very least, that the President’s lawyers get to see the Starr report, which accuses the President of wrongdoing, before it was made public. Republicans, sensing that further embarrassment of the President would serve their agenda, wanted the report out, in full, as soon as it was possible to do so.

Given available new technology the report’s release was both immediate and massive. Most major U.S. papers published the entire 445-page document, in full, the very next day. Over 60,000 internet sites carried the report as well. Never before had one document been made available so quickly to so many. By the next day, Sunday, a national poll indicated that one-third of the American people had seen the Starr report. And, from the public reaction, what they saw was sordid and distasteful.

It is the contention of the IC that the President lied under oath when he testified (during a deposition in the Paula Jones case) that he “did not have sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky.” In an effort to disprove this lie, the IC’s report provides graphic detail of actions between Lewinsky and the President–all derived from Lewinsky’s words.

There was an irony to the fact that the same Republicans who voted just a short while ago to ban pornography from the internet, voted to make available to every computer in the United States, what could only be described as a report filled with pornographic detail.

Starr’s critics were furious. They charged that the conservative IC padded the report with sex in order to embarrass the President. Despite the fact that the IC’s report is only one side of the story and is only about “sex and lies,” as one commentator noted, “apparently Starr felt that the more shocking the detail, the more lasting the damage to Clinton.”

The reaction was swift and predictable. Republican members of Congress expressed outrage terming the President’s behavior immoral and “illegal.” Increasingly, Republican congressmen and candidates for Congress are calling on the President to resign.

Democratic representatives, on the other hand, while also expressing their anger and disgust over the President’s actions maintain that the charges against the President, while serious, are not sufficient grounds to remove him from office. While Democratic Congressmen are facing intense questioning about the President from the press and their Republican opponents–most have publicly remained firm against impeachment.

The nation’s press reaction has divided over similar lines–but a suprisingly large number of newspaper editorials and media commentators have joined the chorus of those saying Clinton should resign. For many years now the Washington press corps has behaved like the fourth branch of government. And this instance is no exception.

The public opinion reaction, on the other hand, has moved along a different path. Most Americans are clearly offended by the President’s behavior. They indicate that they are ashamed of his actions–but by 2 to 1 they want to see Clinton remain in office. By the same 2 to 1 margin they: give the President a positive job rating, do not want him to resign or be removed from office and want the Congress to stop their investigation now.

These divergent views are easy to explain. Politicians are concerned first and foremost with their own elections and power. While some Republican members of Congress, for example, are in fact motivated by a true sense of morality–others simply see the President’s problems as an issue they can exploit for the November elections.

But Republicans are learning that there are some dangers in this strategy. Already two Republican candidates who sought to use television ads decrying the President’s lack of morality have been exposed in their local newspapers for their own past sexual misdeeds.

Republicans must also consider the possibility of a backlash. If they push too far and appear to gloat over the President’s problems and do not offer any other program ideas–the public may react negatively.

Democrats are also in a bind. On the one hand they must show anger and disgust with Clinton’s actions, but they too can only go so far. While many Democrats in Congress still remember how the President undercut them on issues in the past (agreeing with Republicans on taxes, the budget, welfare reform, NAFTA, etc.), they feel that to totally abandon him now, would only further hurt the Democratic party and their own chances for reelection in November.

The public reaction requires a more complex explanation. In a sense, the public can’t be too disappointed in the President’s behavior, because most Americans already assumed that he was not a moral exemplar.

Most Americans have learned not to look to politicians as role models. Like movie stars and sports heroes, the images of politicians are fragile media creations–which all too many times have been shattered. There is, therefore, a hardening of public sentiment coupled with a cynicism and a lowering of expectations. They know that sports and movie stars are not necessarily “good people”–all that is expected of them is that they do their job.

Americans are apparently making a similar judgement about the President with a good economy and a fragile world order; Americans are saying, “leave well enough alone.” The majority view is that what the President did is wrong–but not an impeachable crime. They therefore do not want to see any further upheaval or disruption. And they do not want to undo the 1996 election.

If it were up to the public as a whole, this crisis would be resolved with the President having his wrists severely slapped by Congress.

But with Congress having so politicized the situation and the media so enthralled by its own pontificating–it does not seem that the crisis will be so easily put aside.

The danger of course is that politics and the media can combine to create a stampede that, once started, can be impossible to control. Even at this point, before the full congressional process is underway all eyes are on the President to see if he can head off this disaster. Can he still lead? Can his words on issues break through or will they be drummed out by the “scandal?”

The President is mounting a determined effort to move in this direction. Last week he delivered a major address on the global economy and hosted Czech President Vaclav Havel in Washington. The Czech press, attending the two presidents’ joint press conference, was dumbfounded by the U.S. press’ obsession with the scandal.

Next week the President will attempt to focus on other issues before Congress and on the visit to Washington of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz. In all of these activities Clinton will be swimming against the media and political stream—trying to change the direction of this current.

Only time will tell if he can succeed and if he can survive.

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