SPECIAL REPORT: LEGACY OF A SCANDAL
FEBRUARY 22, 1999 VOL. 153 NO. 7
Yes, it was wretched, and we're glad to wake up. But even bad dreams can serve useful purposes
BY NANCY GIBBS
Friday was graduation day, full of pomp and circumstance. The Senators voted to acquit the President, and he gave his 82-second commencement address. The daffodils didn't know enough to stay under the mulch, the little white flags fluttered on the South Lawn putting green, aides stood in the sunshine listening to him apologize and reconcile one more time. And of course it was the postscript that sealed the day, after he turned to leave and heard the heavenly question transmitted by Sam Donaldson. "In your heart, sir, can you forgive and forget?"
Perfect. Pause. "I believe," Clinton answered, reaching for his diploma, "any person who asks for forgiveness has to be prepared to give it."
He had been up so late--thinking and writing, thinking and writing, the long version, the short version--that he slept through his 8 a.m. wake-up call and was still scribbling as the votes tolled, guilty, not guilty. He knew--everyone knew--that every time he had opened his mouth about the scandal he had made things worse: too glib, too bitter, too unbowed, too phony. But as Dick Morris once said, Bill Clinton will make every mistake a President can make, but he will make it only once. This time he was so determined to get the tone right that he kept searching for the word he knew was still missing. The last word he added came at the end, when he urged everyone to "rededicate ourselves to the work of serving our nation and building our future," and then wrote in "together."
So much for burning down the House.
Nobody needs to be told what to hate about this year, what made us flinch or groan, change the channel, fling the magazine across the room. Generations of scholars yet unborn will read shelves of books yet unwritten trying to figure out what went wrong in America in 1998 and why. So maybe it's the lazy luxury of relief, now that it's over, to look at what might have gone right and toast the new era with a glass half full.
The serial predictions of anarchy never came true. The markets did not crash, the public did not rush to judgment, fact and fiction met but didn't merge, and the unending Senate trial took precisely 37 days. Within moments of the vote, the Senators were cheering the Chief Justice and one another, and no one lunged for anyone else's throat. The U.S. is still a superpower, and the only elected President to be impeached is still the leader of the free world.
A public content to ignore its government can take heart that its institutions are sturdy and forgiving: the presidency forgave a reckless President, the Congress survived a bout of cannibalism, the Constitution warded off anyone who tried to ransack it for any reason. It was tempting to blame the clanking 18th century impeachment mechanisms for dragging out the investigation for months after the public had made up its mind; yet that stately pace served the purpose of forcing both sides to confront the evidence, honor the process, hear each other out. It turns out the Constitution wasn't built for speed. It was built to last.
In some ways the system turned itself inside out. The House members, who stand for election every two years in districts so small that all voices should be heard, were the ones who drove the process forward despite widespread resistance. The Senate was designed to judge the case on the legal merits, protected from public passions by its six-year terms; yet in the end the Senators accepted the fact that the public had reached a complex decision to tolerate Clinton's conduct, and groped their way through the law and politics and duty to find a way to honor the people's will.
In the process some blurry principles came into focus. For years the debate has raged over which conduct is public and relevant, which is private and protected. One after another, in the effort to prove they were being prosecutors, not Puritans, Republicans declared that the private aspect of Clinton's misconduct was no one's business, certainly not the Senate's. If the media get the message, the country will be happy to move on. Similarly, the culture of investigation that created Ken Starr with his searchlights and Bill Clinton with his Dobermans has been examined under bright lights, and so surely we will now look for a better way to hold politicians accountable without holding them hostage.
The Senate today is a different place from what it was six weeks ago, before what Bob Kerrey calls its "confinement." Senators these days are free agents: they talk to cameras, not one another. But during the trial's last week, when the TV lights and microphones were turned off, that slowly changed, and the members became like neighbors who take down the fences after the floodwaters have swept the whole town away. They turned to one another and had an argument unlike any other in their experience: pointed, passionate and thoroughly private. On Friday, once the vote was taken, Tom Daschle and Trent Lott reached across the aisle and shook hands. "We did it," said the Democratic leader as his counterpart slapped him on the back. "We sure did," responded Lott. There were thumbs flying high and backs thumped and orthopedic hugs all around as the Senators filed out.
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