"Everyone will be punished"

Clinton allies threaten total war against Republicans and the press if impeachment battle begins.

Published September 10, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

WASHINGTON -- In the wake of Kenneth Starr's turning over his 500-page report on President Clinton's alleged offenses, White House aides, Democratic Party operatives and congressional sources say Clinton has embarked upon a new strategy designed to spare him from impeachment and his party from severe losses in the midterm elections now less than two months away. The strategy includes repeated public apologies to the nation for lying about his 18-month relationship with Monica Lewinsky; a signal from Clinton that he is willing to accept congressional censure for his behavior; and White House efforts to convince Democratic incumbents that despite the president's problems, internal polls show support for the party to be strong.

Another crucial component of any White House political strategy, aides say, is Clinton's dependence upon moderate Republicans' distaste for impeachment proceedings and the political damage it could cause to the GOP.

But with more Democrats publicly venting their anger at Clinton over the Lewinsky affair, these sources admit the strategy is risky and could collapse under the impact of Starr's report. If that happens, one hard-core Clinton ally warned, Washington had better prepare for the so-called Doomsday scenario -- the dreaded sexual Armageddon in which the personal peccadilloes of everyone -- Republicans, Democrats, journalists -- are exposed if Clinton's infidelities are dragged into the open. Starr sent Congress his report Wednesday along with 36 large boxes of what an aide called "substantial and credible" evidence of offenses allegedly committed by President Clinton, launching the first presidential impeachment process since Watergate.

Under heavy security, two jeeps carrying the report and the evidence arrived at a congressional office building on Capitol Hill, where the material will remain locked away and guarded from all eyes until Congress passes legislation on how lawmakers will handle the report.

Many lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, want to make the report public while keeping secret grand jury testimony and other evidence that could harm innocent people. House Speaker Newt Gingrich said he expects the House to vote Friday on how the materials will be reviewed. Even after the legislation is passed, House sources said, it could be weeks before the report is made public.

Only hours before the report was submitted, President Clinton delivered a fresh new apology for what he has termed his "inappropriate relationship" with former White House intern Lewinsky. "I let my family down and I let this country down, but I am trying to make it right," Clinton told a Democratic crowd at a fund-raiser in Orlando, Fla. Without ever mentioning Lewinsky's name, Clinton said he was "determined never to let anything like that happen again." Clinton's Florida remarks, which followed a private apology to congressional Democratic leaders at the White House earlier Wednesday, signaled the new White House plan for dealing with mounting political fallout from his affair with Lewinsky, his lies to cover it up and the widening clamor among Republicans, the media and a handful of Democrats for his impeachment. One aide said Clinton came away from his meeting with Democratic leaders with a new sense of focus and an eagerness for the report to be made public so he could begin addressing its accusations. "Let's get on with it," said one White House aide. "Let's get it out."

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was described by one White House aide as combative and confident. "There's nothing in that report," the aide quoted Mrs. Clinton as saying.

In additional to laying out evidence of possible obstruction of justice, abuse of power and witness tampering, Starr's report also is expected to include seamy details of Clinton's sexual encounters with Lewinsky to prove that Clinton perjured himself when he swore in a civil deposition, and later before Starr's grand jury, that he did not have sexual relations with the former White House intern.

At his meeting with congressional Democratic leaders Wednesday morning, Clinton apologized for the pain his affair with Lewinsky had caused his family and the nation. Rep. David Bonior of Michigan, the second-ranking Democrat in the House, said afterward that the Democratic leaders who attended the meeting forgave Clinton. But Democratic sources said the party leaders were blunt with Clinton about the damage he had caused to his credibility and told him it was no longer clear he could be trusted. The party's willingness to stand behind him would depend on what was in the Starr report, the sources quoted the leaders as warning Clinton. Meanwhile, Bonior said he advised the president he needs to convince the nation that he is sincere about his contrition and that "he needs to address it on a continual basis."

Ever since last week, when Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, formerly a close friend of Clinton's and a leading figure in the centrist wing of the Democratic Party, flayed the president on the Senate floor for his "immoral behavior," a number of other Democratic senators, including Daniel Moynihan of New York, Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, Barbara Boxer of California and Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, have joined the chorus of criticism. Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia added his voice Wednesday, savaging Clinton for undermining family values but stopping short of calling for his impeachment.

In the Senate, only Moynihan has called for Clinton's impeachment. In the House, a number of Democratic members have echoed the stern message from the Senate, but only four Democrats -- House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri, Paul McHale of Pennsylvania, James Moran of Virginia and Marcy Kaptur of Ohio -- have spoken of Clinton's impeachment. Under pressure from party leaders, Gephardt later softened his remarks.

Now that Starr's report is in the hands of Congress, White House political advisors, who fought continuously with Clinton's legal team about their close-to-the-chest handling of the scandal, believe they will have more say in how Clinton deals with the crisis. The public apologies that Clinton is now delivering, they say, are one sign that Clinton is listening to his political advisors, who urged the president to be more contrite and less defensive when he issued his first confession of his affair with Lewinsky on Aug. 17. That confession, a mixture of personal regret and aggressive attacks against Starr, was widely regarded as a failure.

White House and party strategists say Clinton is also hoping he can convince members of Congress to agree to censure him for his conduct, which would allow them to register their moral outrage and move on with the nation's business. A number of hard-line Republican lawmakers and several Democrats have said it is too late for censure, but this part of Clinton's strategy, these strategists say, depends on Republican moderates' coming to the conclusion that the GOP also would suffer from an impeachment process that would inevitably be portrayed by Democrats as a partisan campaign.

"This is going to turn into a huge clown show if they take up impeachment," said one Clinton ally. The ally noted that the Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee, which would handle any impeachment proceedings, include highly partisan figures like Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, Maxine Waters of California, John Conyers of Michigan and Charles Schumer of New York.

"These are pretty solid Democrats," the Clinton ally said. "We're talking about the heart of the Democratic Party. The Republicans will get a war in there if they want to pursue this."

For now, White House and party strategists appear unworried by the criticism they have heard from various Democratic senators and members of Congress. Rather than view the criticism as part of a mounting wave of disillusionment within the party, these strategists are weighing the authors of the criticism one by one: Moynihan and Kerrey, they say, have never liked Clinton, so their remarks are personal. Boxer and Hollings are in tough races for reelection, so their efforts to distance themselves from Clinton are, they say, understandable. Lieberman, some contend, is a combination of "heartfelt sincerity" -- he really believes the president's behavior was immoral -- and "ambition" -- he wants to be viewed as the moral voice of the Senate and position himself as a future vice presidential candidate. Moran and Kaptur are running in marginal districts, and McHale is not running for reelection at all, so his remarks constitute a political "freebie." And so on.

Moreover, several party strategists say that the nervousness among Democratic lawmakers is not borne out by recent internal polls -- taken before the report was submitted -- which show Democratic support in their districts to be strong. "After a few days, they'll realize Clinton is their only life raft," said one member of the Clinton camp. "Clinton's job approval rating numbers are still high, even though he's in political trouble. The only hope that Democrats have is to keep Clinton's number high. When they abandon him and start shooting at him, they're shooting holes in the bottom of their own lifeboat."

Until the details of the report become known, of course, it remains to be seen whether the new White House strategy of contrition and control will work, or if it will resonate like the captain of the Titanic saying, "There's no need for alarm, ladies and gentlemen. We're only stopping briefly to take on some ice." Democratic strategists admit that any new disclosures could be highly damaging, and Clinton's high approval ratings could plummet, emboldening Congress to move down the path toward impeachment. That, a Clinton ally warned, could trigger the "Doomsday scenario."

"I think there is a possibility that everything slides and all bets are off," this ally threatened. "And if everything slides, everyone will be punished -- everyone, including the press. It will be a total meltdown."

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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