Days of Rage 

Goaded by America’s indifference, Republicans rampage in Senate

Wednesday, Jan 27 1999
Photo courtesy AP/Wide World

So now the Senate — by its own assessment the world’s greatest deliberative body — has decided to subpoena witnesses. On Tuesday, it debated the issue behind closed doors — fearing, no doubt, that if it conducted the world’s greatest deliberations in public, the very planet would plotz. On Wednesday, it voted, largely along the world’s greatest party lines, to depose three witnesses.

Not that the House managers held out much hope that the witnesses would say anything new. Monica Lewinsky, they admitted, could for the most part be expected to confirm her earlier testimony. As to presidential friend Vernon Jordan, House manager Asa Hutchinson averred, the prosecution has only one new question up its sleeve: Did Jordan ask Lewinsky to destroy her notes of her conversations with the president?

That’s a most peculiar question, though, to raise in a trial of Bill Clinton, since, even in the immensely unlikely event that Jordan admits he did direct Monica to the shredder, it doesn’t directly implicate the president at all. Last weekend, Ken Starr did the work of congressional Republicans by forcing Lewinsky to meet with them. Now the congressional Republicans propose to do the work of Ken Starr by helping him build a case against Vernon Jordan. But unless the Senate believes that it can remove Jordan from the high office of presidential friend, it’s hard to see how this fits into the impeachment proceeding.

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The case for calling presidential aide Sidney Blumenthal seems equally tenuous. Blumenthal already testified twice to the grand jury that on the day the Lewinsky story broke in the press, Clinton told him that Monica was a "stalker" who had fabricated the entire tale. There are now two new lines of questioning to pursue, said House manager James Rogan: Did Clinton tell Blumenthal last summer that he made all this up, and then tell Blumenthal the real story so he could relate it to the grand jury? And did Blumenthal or other White House staffers phone reporters to relay Clinton’s "stalker" story?

Now the Senate has subpoenaed Blumenthal so that he can offer the only possible answer to the first of these queries: "No, duh." (Consider the alternative: Yes, Blumenthal would say, the president confided the real story to me alone, and come to think of it, I may have committed perjury in the grand jury by failing to bring it up.) As to the second question, while a flow chart of White House disinformation to the media may be helpful to political scientists (it could be placed alongside "How a Bill Becomes a Law"), it’s hard to see how it adds to what is already the universal knowledge that Clinton lied to the public.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that Lewinsky must stick to her story or risk the wrath of Ken Starr, despite the certainty that neither Jordan nor Blumenthal will volunteer anything that could further damage Bill Clinton, despite the 2-to-1 public opposition to prolonging the trial, the Republicans have voted to call witnesses.

Which does raise the question of why.

Okay, so there’s the constitutional-responsibility theory, though the Senate’s duty under the Constitution hasn’t changed much since last month, when Trent Lott, right after the House impeachment, suggested that maybe the Senate could skip the trial altogether and just go to a vote. And there’s the right-wing-pressure-on-Republicans theory, which is unquestionably a factor, and the tribal-behavior theory, which says that on the Clinton Question, you gotta hang with your own party.

My own contribution to unraveling the mystery of Republican behavior might be called the "Gambler on a Losing Streak" theory. Like that gambler, the Republicans are in a huge hole. They wagered that releasing the Starr Report would bring them public support, and they lost. They bet that releasing the full videotape of Clinton’s grand-jury testimony would turn the tide in their favor, and they lost. They made the case for impeachment in the House Judiciary Committee, and their ratings slid further. They impeached the president on almost a straight party-line vote, and their approval ratings sank to levels not seen since Benedict Arnold. At each point, they could have just swallowed their losses and walked away from the table. At each point, they decided instead to double their bet in hopes of regaining their political capital on the next roll of the dice, of convincing the American people with this or that new revelation that the president truly deserved to be dumped, or at least that their case wasn’t as partisan and mean-spirited as the public had come to believe.

In the earlier stages of this process, there really was new material to present, even if — as with the Starr Report and the president’s videotaped testimony — it only confirmed what the public already knew and thought about the story. Now, there isn’t even that. In their case to the Senate over the past two weeks, the House managers have simply and endlessly related the same set of facts that the public has known for many months.

Nonetheless, the Republicans have now plunked down their last chips on the remote possibility that they can change the public’s mind with the very case the public has already dismissed, and despite the very real probability that they will only further tax the public’s patience. It’s at such a point in the life of the gambler that loved ones intervene and pack the bankroll-blower off to Gamblers Anonymous. Gerald Ford and Bob Dole have tried to do this for congressional Republicans, suggesting they censure Clinton and let it go at that — but the congressmen, and now the senators, have paid no heed. Big Henry is rolling the dice, and they’re all down with him. Big Henry has rolled nothing but snake eyes since the game began, but that’s the beauty of it: He’s due! He’s overdue!

In recent days, though, the House managers have intimated that they may be playing another game altogether. They seek only to make their case. "Let us finish our job," Henry Hyde implored the Senate on Monday. "And when you do, however you vote, we’ll all collect our papers, bow from the waist, thank you for your courtesy . . . and go gently into the night."

Their "job," however, has been redefined: They’re not in the persuasion game anymore. The point of having witnesses is simply to humiliate Clinton all the more. Never mind that their previous attempts at humiliation — releasing the unedited Starr Report and the grand-jury testimony — engendered more public revulsion at their zeal than at the president’s conduct. It’s no longer the public they’re playing to, but a public: the hardcore right, for whom the highest task of statecraft is to drag Clinton through the mud, endlessly and for all time.

This calculated willingness to dismiss the serious concerns of the broader public (indeed, to infuriate that public) signals a dangerous development within American conservatism — dangerous chiefly to itself. For in their exasperation at failing to convince their fellow citizens to share their assessment of Clinton, conservatives are beginning to cross a line that no one has transgressed since the far left of the anti-war movement 30 years ago. In the late ’60s, frustrated with the unwillingness of the American public to shut down the Vietnam War, portions of the left demon-ized the American — or should I say, Amerikan — people. And today, stunned at the unwillingness of the public to demand Clinton’s ouster, the right is doing the same.

Thus author William Bennett sees in the public’s continuing support for Clinton clear evidence of America’s moral decline. At last weekend’s national conference of the Conservative Political Action Committee in Washington, Andrea Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition told the Washington Post that "the American people are really messed up" for refusing to see Clinton’s adultery as cause for removal. Somewhat more discreetly, but a good deal more tellingly, mainstream conservative William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, observed that "the Founders were right to have a certain distrust of democracy."

On the extreme fringes of the right, such diatribes are nothing new: Polemicists such as Robert Bork have been railing against both American immorality and the disease of democracy for years. But the broader movement’s inability to move the American public on the Clinton Question is now pushing the entire right toward its own rampage, its own Days of Rage, against an immoral America. A corrupt people cannot be persuaded, after all; it can only be shocked. The Weathermen did it in the streets. The Republicans do it in the Senate.

Despite Henry Hyde’s promise, the right isn’t about to go gently into the night after Clinton is acquitted. Matt Drudge and the Wall Street Journal editorialists will allege new atrocities. True believers will flock to Republican candidate forums and pepper presidential candidates on l’affaire Lewinsky — still the great moral question of our time. They will flay America for its moral relativism, push their party toward a platform of purification.

And the Democratic Party need do nothing to egg the conservatives on. They can’t stop themselves. They can’t help themselves. Big Henry’s the shooter! Get that rent money down!

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