The man Clinton could have been

Sen. Tom Daschle, the Democrats' point man on impeachment, is a tough negotiator who could save Clinton from himself.

Published December 30, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

James Abourezk savors a story about Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., the man who now holds the fate of President Clinton in his hands.

It was 1973. Abourezk, a fiery populist, held the seat Daschle now occupies, railing against oil companies, neglect of the Indians in his state and the war in Vietnam. Daschle was his skinny young legislative aide, fresh out of the Air Force.

"I had a bunch of hostile American Legionnaires in my office one day," Abourezk recalled over the telephone from Sioux Falls this week. "They were on my ass about the Vietnam War. The vote bell rang and I said, 'Tom, you speak to these folks and answer their questions until I get back.'"

He chuckles.

"I was so happy the vote bell rang. I came back later and they were almost hugging and kissing. Tom had them eating out of his hand."

Abourezk added, "He's been so good at that over the years. He's always been that way. Tom brings people to accommodation."

Ironically, it's something Tom Daschle and President Clinton, generational peers, share. In many ways, they are mirror images of each other. Both came from poor, hardscrabble homes. Both were the first college graduates in their families. Daschle's dad was a bookkeeper in a South Dakota auto parts dealership, Clinton's Arkansas father was famously absent.

Both barely squeaked into national office on their first tries, Clinton ascending to the presidency with 43 percent of the vote in 1992, Daschle winning his first run for Congress in 1978 by the skin of his teeth. The election-night tally had him the victor by only 14 votes; a recount would later increase the margin to a whopping 139. In 1994, he won the post of Democratic leader in the Senate by a single vote.

But looking back, their fates could be said to be defined in a single decision in 1968, in the depths of the Vietnam War. While Clinton was at Oxford trying simultaneously to dodge the draft and maintain his "political viability," as he famously put it in a letter to an Army colonel back home, Daschle was serving a three-year hitch as an enlisted man in the Air Force.

Nobody is going to bring up Clinton's draft dodging this week, or the fact that Daschle served. It's an old story about choices made in the fog of a long-ago, and bitterly divisive, war. But the fact that one made the hard choice while the other didn't speaks volumes about where each of them stand today: One in the dock, the other both a member of the jury and a key defender of the accused.

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Despite the Democrats' sufficient numbers to block impeachment, nobody is predicting what will happen in the Senate, a notoriously unpredictable body. Some Republicans are resisting Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's attempts to quickly conclude the process, but Daschle is a counterforce Lott must reckon with. And by some accounts on Tuesday, he was close to hammering out a compromise with Lott for a quick up-and-down vote that could avert a trial.

Nobody's putting money on that outcome, but nobody who has worked with Daschle would be surprised. He's been pulling rabbits out of hats for years. And leaving even his enemies respectful.

In the 1970s, for example, Daschle took on the entire corporate and government health establishment over Agent Orange, the Vietnam defoliant that was making veterans sick. Both the Veterans Administration and Rep. Sonny Montgomery, D-Miss., chairman of the House Veterans Committee, denied any connection between the chemicals and the illness. Daschle came up with a solution that had the National Academy of Sciences study the evidence and the V.A. accept its findings -- whatever they turned out to be. The NAS study, as Daschle anticipated, linked Agent Orange to various cancers and the V.A. was forced to start treating veterans.

"He was the guy who was responsible for the Agent Orange issue finally gaining credibility," said Mike Leavick, then legislative director for the Vietnam Veterans of America Inc. "If it wasn't for him, it never would've happened. He's the guy."

With his easy smile and low-key manner, Daschle was considered too soft to negotiate with the swaggering Republicans when he ran for the Senate leadership post in 1994.

One of his foremost critics was Sen. Robert Byrd, the silver-maned West Virginian and leader of the Democrats in the 1970s and early '80s. But he came around after he saw Daschle in action.

"I did not support Tom Daschle in 1994, in the main, because I did not think he was tough enough to deal with the likes of Bob Dole," he told a gathering of Democrats last year. "I am here today to tell you that I was totally wrong about this young man. He has steel in his spine, despite his reasonable and modest demeanor."

Many Senate Republicans had already learned that. In 1997 Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia had the Senate Rules Committee expand an already discredited investigation into alleged voting irregularities in the Louisiana election that sent Democrat Mary Landrieu to Washington.

"I think everyone in this town knows what's going on," Daschle told reporters, suggesting Warner was playing to extreme Republicans. "John Warner wants to be the next chairman of the Armed Services Committee ... I think the Republicans are trying to steal this election." With Warner's toga effectively ripped off in the eyes of the press, the investigation never gained traction.

Unlike Clinton, who so often sets traps for his enemies but won't confront them outright, Daschle is not afraid to stand up and draw a line in the sand. When the Republicans moved to scuttle the Democrats' hike in the minimum wage, Daschle threatened a filibuster: "We are simply going to shut this place down." When Dole complained, Daschle merely said, "Welcome to the Senate, Sen. Dole."

The differences in style were never so apparent as when the impeachment trial began to loom in the Senate. Desperate Clinton attorneys, no doubt encouraged by lawyer Clinton, floated an idea of challenging the constitutionality of the House vote.

Senate Democrats (read: Daschle) gave the idea a cold shoulder. Their message: It's time to stand up and fight in the open -- on the issues.

No doubt Tom Daschle flashed his hole cards to Trent Lott when they began bargaining over the shape of the Senate proceedings last week.

Hole card No. 1: 45 Democrats, enough to block a guilty verdict. Hole card No. 2: Public disdain for a long trial.

But Lott has a few cards, too: a guess that a fickle public might turn on Clinton if any one of a number of rumored bombshells concerning the president's love life explode this week. Or that the public might be tiring of the drama and demand Clinton quit just to get it over with.

"This place is just one big finger to the wind," Jim Abourezk thundered on the Senate floor years ago during a debate on oil monopolies.

Indeed. The wind is blowing hard in Washington this week, and the man shielding President Clinton is the man he could have been.

By Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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