On to the Senate

With impeachment behind him, the president carries on. And on.

Published December 18, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

On Monday, President Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton were scheduled to serve food in a soup kitchen in Washington. That afternoon the first couple will entertain 1,500 members of the press and their families on the South Lawn.

And, by the way, on Saturday Clinton became the second president ever to be impeached by the House of Representatives.

For public consumption, the White House will carry on. And on and on. On message, on point, on with the holiday celebrations. Expect Clinton to keep saying what he's been saying as he's moved from diplomatic trips to the Middle East to fund-raisers in the Midwest: "I'm just coming to work."

The question becomes whether Clinton's uncanny skill at compartmentalizing will keep him sane and in office for the next few months. Surviving as the energetic president carrying out his duties on one hand and as the embattled president fighting an impeachment trial in the Senate on the other might save Clinton's hide. Or it might turn him into a nutcase.

After a predictable day of speechmaking on Friday, the House on Saturday approved two of four articles of impeachment. Along partisan lines, the House voted 228-206 for an article charging Clinton with perjury for lying under oath to a grand jury. The House also voted 221-212 for the third article, accusing Clinton of obstruction of justice. Members rejected articles alleging perjury in the Paula Jones case and abusing the powers of his office by giving false written answers to questions posed by Congress during the impeachment inquiry. In legal terms, the articles of impeachment are charges that will come before the Senate, which will act as a jury and decide if the charges are true and merit Clinton's removal from office.

By 8:30 a.m. EST, before the members gathered on the House floor, Hillary Clinton was on Capitol Hill meeting with the Democratic caucus, where she set the emotional tone for the next phase of battle. According to Hill sources, the first lady said she "loves" her husband -- she has avoided such personal statements since August -- and urged congressmembers to stay focused on core Democratic issues.

And as the House voted, Clinton and his top aides were already putting the finishing touches on a strategy to take control in the Senate and in the court of public opinion. Clinton's inner circle has been pared down to a cadre of loyal and very angry aides, true believers who accept the Clintons' belief that the drive to dethrone the president is motivated by right-wing Republicans rather than the rule of law.

"The Republicans run a risk if they pursue a strategy that puts America's interest last," warned White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart. "The public has a certain amount of tolerance for partisan politics, and they've had just about enough."

Clinton's political aides know enough to realize that the Republican Party is plummeting in the polls, down to its lowest approval ratings in decades. The president, aides say, will take his high approval ratings on an offensive in the first days of the new year.

Right after the House vote, busloads of Democrats rode down Pennsylvania Avenue to link arms with the president. CNN broadcast the convoy driving across town from the Capitol to the White House, and it was surreally reminiscent of footage of O.J. Simpson's Bronco chase. At 4:30 p.m., three hours after the first vote of impeachment was announced, Clinton walked out of the White House, holding hands with the first lady, and took the high road. "I will continue to do the work of the American people," Clinton said, vowing to stay in office "until the last hour of the last day of my term."

The president already has plans go take that message on the road, aides report. More than a month in advance, he's working on his State of the Union message and his budget. He will hammer home popular programs with something for everyone: to improve education, bolster Social Security and keep the military strong.

Clinton is also stronger in the Senate than he is in the House. Three of his top aides -- chief of staff John Podesta, special counsel Gregory Craig and senior advisor Doug Sosnik -- have worked in the Senate. The president has personal ties with a number of senators, and he's already enlisted former Sens. George Mitchell and Bob Dole to take his case to their former colleagues.

While the Clintons try to win the war of words, James Carville is girding for hand-to-hand combat by forming a political action committee designed to hold Republicans accountable for their impeachment votes.

"They're going to get the blame for doing this," he said. "They've put something into motion, and they're going to have to live with the consequences of it."

By Harry Jaffe

Harry Jaffe is a leading journalist covering Washington, DC—its politics, its crime, its heroes and villains. Beyond Washington, Jaffe’s work has been published in Yahoo News, Men’s Health,Harper’s, Esquire, and newspapers from the San Francisco Examiner to the Philadelphia Inquirer. He’s appeared in documentary films, and on television and radio across the country and throughout Europe.

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