In the fiery years of Watergate, Jimmy Breslin wrote a book called “How the Good Guys Finally Won.” It was a spirited recounting of how people better than Richard Nixon brought him down. It would strike some of us as odd to remember those days as happy, but that’s how Mr. Breslin saw it, and for a lot of people they were. I know a couple who courted throughout the scandal, who fell in love as they shared inside dope about what Chuck Colson did today and what Martha Mitchell told her hairdresser.
Part of what they felt was the joy of the hunt, the excitement of being a little person able to stand on principle and overpower your big, powerful enemy. This no doubt is what Ben Bradlee was referring to when, during Iran-contra, he was quoted as saying, “I haven’t had as much fun since Watergate!”
There was no such joy in Mudville when Mighty Clinton struck out. There were the tears of Tom DeLay, and the sadness of Chris Shays, and, for those watching at home, this: the picture of the murmuring, milling floor of the House as the first article of impeachment got 218 votes and passed. You couldn’t tell anything had happened from what you saw; no one seemed to notice. I cleared my throat and said to my son, “They impeached the president,” and that was the only sound.
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Now it’s Monday morning, we’ve all had time to digest and absorb the astounding Allan Drury novel that unfolded this weekend, and one should say it: The good guys finally won.
And it was moving, because they did it against the odds, and they stood on principle, and they didn’t let the polls rule them, and they acted in a way that may have put them in both short-term and long-term political jeopardy. But they did what they thought was right. And down the road Republicans may see these nerve-jangling days as the time when their party, long buffeted by doubt and confusion, began to find its soul again.
It was Henry Hyde, stupendous and tremendous Henry Hyde, who explained better than anyone, I thought, what was at issue. “The question before this House,” he said, “is quite simple. It is not a question of sex. Sexual misconduct and adultery are private acts and none of Congress’s business. It is not a question of lying about sex. The matter before the House is a question of lying under oath. This is a public act. This is called perjury. The matter before the House is a question of the willful, premeditated, deliberate, shameless corruption of the nation’s system of justice. Perjury and obstruction of justice cannot be reconciled with the office of the president of the United States. That, and nothing other than that, is the issue before us.”
He was followed by a series of Republicans who spoke soberly, factually. The Democrats had long labeled the impeachment debate a distraction from the urgent business of a great nation. But the Republicans argued that the pursuit of justice is the business of a great nation. In winning this point, they caught the falling flag, producing a triumph for the rule of law, a reassertion of the belief that no man is above it, and a rebuke for an arrogance that had grown imperial.
It was strange and Druryesque that the most electric moment of the Clinton impeachment was the resignation of Speaker-to-be Bob Livingston, when he said of the president, “You, sir, may resign your post,” and the Democrats hissed, “You resign!” and he held up his hand, and looked at them, and told them he would. That breathtaking moment, the hooting and the hand and the announcement, seemed to me revealing of different styles, of almost characterological differences between Democrats and Republicans these days. The Democrats in Congress now are like the young Chuck Colson, partisan, ruthless and tough. The Republicans seemed like the young William Cohen, thoughtful and stricken.
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Sunday morning, James Carville went on “Meet the Press” and did what his wife calls his nuclear winter routine, threatening the president’s foes and promising to punish them. You’d expect the president’s friends to be thinking, pondering, ratcheting down the rhetoric. Their man just became the first elected American president to be impeached. It ought to concentrate the mind. It would be more understandable if they were thinking, “If only . . . if only he had reacted differently.”
Their friend was the defendant in a sexual-harassment case. He got blindsided by an embarrassing question while under oath. He did a wrong but human thing, he panicked and lied. Then he went home. He had time to think. If only that day—or one day in the months afterward—he had said, “I was asked under oath if I’d done something wrong. I was surprised and ashamed and I lied. But I want you to know it is true, I had a relationship for two years that was wrong, I ended it, I was and am ashamed of it, and now you have this information and must do with it what you will. I’ll pay whatever fine and face whatever censure. But I can’t drag America through the mud any more over this.”
What would have happened if Mr. Clinton had done this? It would have been a five-day story, with jokes from Jay Leno and a busy buzz in the media and new attacks on his character from his opponents. And then: nothing. It all would have gone away. We could have gotten it behind us. And he would be a successful president today, the luckiest two-termer in all U.S. history, a victor shining in the lights.
Instead Mr. Clinton turned a private transgression into a public trauma. He burrowed in and continued to lie, with fervor and shamelessness, sometimes under oath and sometimes to the country.
That is why he was impeached on Saturday, because he didn’t put his country first, which still comes as a shock because it is the job of the president to put the country first; that’s what he was hired to do. It is strange that his people don’t seem to learn, that they still respond with threats and ugliness, that instead of hanging their heads they hold pep rallies at the White House, as if celebrating another jolly triumph.
It is hard to feel the full human sympathy for Mr. Clinton that one would normally feel for one who has paid a high price for his actions. Throughout the yearlong trauma he forced the country through, he smirked and maneuvered and muscled people. He acted as if he were still in Little Rock, still up against legislators in plaid suits who own the Chevy dealership. When Bill Clinton was governor and it was the Yalie vs. the yokels, the yokels folded when you leaned on them. But Washington is not Little Rock. This is why David Broder told Sally Quinn, “He trashed the place, and it wasn’t his place to trash.” And Lindsey Graham and Chris Cox and Bill McCollum are not yokels.
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Richard Nixon was a strange man, gifted and dogged, self-pitying and morose, but even he at the end aroused sadness and sympathy. You could see that he was, as one of his close friends told me, “phony tough.” He wasn’t really a hard man, it just made him feel better to talk like he was. But Bill Clinton really is hard. That’s why it’s so difficult to feel sympathy for him, because when you look at him you see not the tears inside but the coldness.
Nixon’s people got their hearts broken by history. Pat Buchanan once told me they were close in that White House because they felt so under siege. Mr. Clinton’s people have never seemed under siege. They are attackers, aggressors. For a solid year they’ve been all over the tube, every day, 24-7, and they reflected the style of their boss: finger pointing, accusing.
I don’t recall anyone who works for him ever granting any decency or right spirit to the other side. I can’t recall one of them saying, “I understand the serious issues involved, I understand there are decent people on the other side who feel that important principles must be upheld here, I respect their views, but mine are different.” Instead it was all the smirking snarl, the snarling smirk, all “You’re partisan!,” “You’re far-right haters” leading a “right-wing putsch.”
Nixon’s people were phony tough, like him, and had hearts that could be broken. But Mr. Clinton’s people really are hard, and are proud of it. That’s why they called it the War Room.
But they hurt him with their toughness. They couldn’t help him speak to the country like a fully formed man with a fully formed heart, because Mr. Clinton surrounded himself with men like himself. They couldn’t give him what he needed, because they didn’t have it either. And that too is one of the reasons he was impeached.
But the final reason comes from Sam Ervin, the great old senator of Watergate fame. “God is not mocked,” he said. Mr. Clinton lied under oath after promising to tell the truth, so help him God. And God is not mocked.
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A final image, one that I suspect will stay with me when I think of these days. One of the networks kept showing serial views of the White House as the debate proceeded, and you could see the Washington Monument in the background, that tall, dull monument that yet seems to mean something to people, to say something to them about the permanence and inviolability of our democracy. It’s still covered with girding top to bottom, being cleaned after years of getting dirtied by pollution.
It seemed to me the perfect metaphor for what had happened in the House this weekend. They were trying to take a grand old institution and make it clean again, make it shine like new. It was the right thing to be doing. It’s how the good guys finally won.