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Bill Clinton on memory lane

The impeachment anniversary

I'm stuck with a competing work deadline today, so, rather than simply fall silent here, I invite you to stroll with me down memory lane. On this date 10 years ago - Dec. 19, 1998 - President Bill Clinton was impeached. What follows is the newspaper article that I wrote in the immediate wake of that historic event.

I was not yet an opinion columnist, but that day I was permitted to stretch the boundaries of "news analysis" commentary. Given all that has transpired these past 10 years, Clinton's predicament reads like ancient history, and one can argue that his character flaws are trivial, when matched against the manifest policy flaws of the Bush era. On the other hand, if Clinton hadn't behaved so badly, and hadn't lied under oath about it, and hadn't therefore alienated so many culturally conservative Democratic voters, then it's likely that Al Gore would have won the 2000 election. And Bush would have never gotten the chance to screw things up.

So, 10 years ago, my analysis:

If character is destiny, Bill Clinton is Exhibit A.

On the day that the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, he phoned his ex-pollster, Dick Morris. As Morris later told the grand jury, Clinton said: "You know, I didn't do what they said I did, but I did do something, and maybe I did so much that I can't prove my innocence."

I did do something....Right there, it was clear that Clinton had to make a choice: Come clean with the public, or repeat the denial that he had voiced under oath in the Paula Jones deposition a few days earlier. But Clinton didn't want to make that choice on his own; he wanted Morris to conduct a poll.

Morris complied, and late that night he told the President that most people would require a few months to absorb and accept an admission of perjury. So Clinton made his choice - stonewall. He told Morris, "We'll just have to win, won't we?" And a week later, with help from a friendly Hollywood producer, Clinton scripted his famous finger-wagging falsehood.

At so many critical junctures, Clinton, whether by instinct or calculation, chose deception and recklessness over candor and restraint - in his deposition and grand jury testimony; in his semantic legalese; in his frontal attacks on independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr; in his early refusal to settle the Jones case; and in his willingness to conduct secret trysts with Lewinsky while a sexual-harassment lawsuit was hanging over his head and while Starr and other hostile players were watching his every move.

And so today he finds himself impeached by his political enemies, who control the U.S. House.

Twenty years ago, Richard Nixon looked back on Watergate, during his interviews with British host David Frost, and concluded that while he did have enemies bent on destroying him, "I gave them the sword." Clinton has now done the same. He may still survive as a tarnished president, but it is clear that in the absence of his character flaws, the Impeachment Express never would have picked up speed.

"In essence, he is the author of his own destruction as an effective leader," said presidential historian Robert Dallek, a recent biographer of Lyndon Johnson. "He is an extreme combination of narcissist, politician and lawyer - all in the service of saving his own ass, rather than serving some larger public purpose. This is a pattern of manipulation, obfuscation, self-protectiveness and defensiveness. And now it has trapped him."

Brian Lunde, a Democratic strategist who worked for Clinton in Arkansas during the gubernatorial era, said: "It's all coming home to roost now, his whole way of life and his way of dealing deceptively with people. Before, he got away with his character flaws because he didn't have any legal eagles [prosecutors] watching him. He has finally met his match, and all his old formulas - denying, hoping things will go away - don't apply anymore."

And he cannot extricate himself with the help of his favorite weapon - his golden gift of gab. He has become trapped by his own deceptions, and can no longer talk his way out of trouble. For the moment at least, as Morris said the other day, Clinton is stuck "with the damage of Saturday Night Bill...His character defects are beginning to overtake him."

Those traits, by themselves, are not remotely impeachable. What has put him in the conservatives' crosshairs are the other flaws that analysts view as crucial components of his narcissism - arrogance, a sense of victimhood, and a belief (as his former press secretary Dee Dee Myers said the other night) "that the rules don't apply to him."

These flaws have poisoned his dealings with the courts and Congress. In his persistent attempts to dodge his pursuers on the Lewinsky scandal, he now seems committed to a legal defense grounded on the notion that truth is what he says it is. He never had sex with Lewinsky - as he defines it "in his own mind," according to his lawyers, who also argue that he did not commit perjury because in his own mind he did not believe he was lying.

"This is just an extension of his old habits," said political analyst Larry Sabato, who spent considerable time in Arkansas researching one of his books on political scandal. "He has always been a salesman who believes whatever he says while he is saying it, in order to win over whoever is listening."

A classic example appears in the final pages of the Starr report. When the sex scandal broke, he insisted on his innocence while conversing with aide Sid Blumenthal. As Blumenthal later told the grand jury, Clinton said that Lewinsky was a stalker, that she "came on to me, and made a sexual demand on me," but that he had rebuffed her. And then, painting himself as a victim, he added: "I feel like somebody who is surrounded by an oppressive force that is creating a lie about me, and I can't get the truth out. I feel like the [imprisoned Soviet] character in the novel Darkness at Noon."

His flaws are writ large in those remarks: his reluctance to take responsibility, his willingness to deceive, his tendency to see himself as a victim, and his eagerness to please the audience at hand - in this case, Blumenthal, who might have been expected to appreciate the pointed reference to Darkness at Noon, given his known affinity for political conspiracy theories.

Former national security aide Roger Morris, who has written biographies of Nixon and Clinton, said that the President's bad habits could be traced to his upbringing in Hot Springs, an Arkansas town "where scandal and impropriety was routinely tolerated. People went to church on Sunday and gambled illegally in the clubs on Monday night...

"And Clinton's problem, going back to the Jones deposition last January, is that he still believes this is just a game he can win. All his life he has been a virtuoso at playing with words to mask the whole truth. It's a technique. It's not coming from the heart, it's coming from the head." (Witness his remark to prosecutors, "It depends on what the meaning of the word is is.")

The wordplay in his sworn testimony seems entirely in character if one remembers 1992, and his refusal to answer yes or no to the question of whether he had smoked marijuana. He insisted that he had never broken the laws of his country. It sounded like a no, but it wasn't. Only when later asked about other countries did he admit to having tried it in England - but without inhaling.

Similarly, Clinton-watchers view his behavior in the Lewinsky case, and see discomfiting echoes of previous scandals. His suggestion to Lewinsky about the gifts - that the prosecutors cannot get them if she no longer has them in her possession - sparks memories of what he told Gennifer Flowers in their taped conversations, that his enemies cannot prove anything as long as both lovers deny the truth.

Another key facet of Clinton's character is his tendency to avoid unpleasant truths. It is a trait that he shared with his mother, one that biographers say took root while growing up in an alcoholic home. It is also a trait that has not served him well during this year.

"It is very painful for a narcissistic politician to be self-critical," Dallek said. "And any outside criticism is particularly wounding, so it's often easier to lash out at the critic" - as occurred last Aug. 17, when Clinton was afforded the opportunity to lower the heat on this scandal. Instead, he attacked Starr in his TV address. It was a turning point.

"He bared his arrogance," said biographer Morris, "and that was a big mistake. When someone like him lets the real animal out of the cage, everything can fall apart. Politics is theater, and a smart politician cannot afford to stop acting."

And if character is destiny, Clinton will fight to keep his job. He will not bow to any demands for resignation, said pollster Dick Morris; rather, "they'll carry him out feet first, and [Hillary] will be hanging onto the drapes."

"If his history is any guide," Lunde said, "he could get right back into campaign mode and behave like a rabid dog, as if it's just a matter of gritting his teeth and hanging on in the Senate. But he would still need the Democratic senators to survive. Others can save him, but he can no longer save himself.

"For the first time ever, he is truly trapped. It will be a real test of character to see how he handles it."


Meanwhile, here in 2008, I was a guest today on Philadelphia National Public Radio (90.9 FM), talking for an hour about the latest national political developments. That "Radio Times" broadcast is archived here.