Want to go fishing? Don't try Whitewater. That's the bad news anti-Clintonistas have been getting lately. After taking a beating in the presidential election, many Republicans began taunting Clinton supporters with: "You elect him, we'll impeach him." But according to those who have been braving Whitewater the longest, the best bet for sinking Mr. Clinton may be Filegate or Indogate or Paula Jones, because Whitewater is proving to be awfully deep.
Several weeks ago independent counsel Kenneth Starr went public for the first time since the election. It wasn't exactly like the other shoe had dropped. He stated that he was having trouble with his investigation because he couldn't get people to talk, particularly Susan McDougal. Last week Mrs. McDougal stated that she believed her husband, James McDougal, was about to unload on the president. Regrettably for Mr. Starr, it is Mrs. and not Mr. McDougal who makes the more credible witness.
And in Congress, there's not much stomach for investigating the president.
There are formidable obstacles standing in the way of action against either Mr. or Mrs. Clinton, says Byron York, who covers Whitewater for The American Spectator, a conservative political magazine whose investigative reporting has savaged the Clintons. He argues that the political fallout that would result from indicting the first lady would be enormous. Mr. Starr would have to come into the possession of very convincing evidence to risk it. What is really required, Mr. York argues, is someone to testify against Mrs. Clinton. But that has not happened yet. Far from it--Mrs. Clinton's friends have shown themselves to be fiercely loyal. They, like the first lady, cannot seem to remember anything.
Regarding the president, the case is even trickier. Some believe a president cannot be indicted, period. During Watergate, the Justice Department caught vice president Spiro Agnew red-handed and told him to resign or face an indictment. He refused to resign, believing he could not be indicted since he was a sitting vice president. It was left to Judge Robert Bork to sort that question out in U.S. vs. Agnew.
Judge Bork issued an opinion in 1974 that a vice president could be indicted, but that a president could not. He believed that the founding fathers intended for crimes committed by a president to be handled politically, that is to say, by Congress. This being the case, should Mr. Starr get enough evidence to indict Mr. Clinton, he would turn it over to Congress for possible impeachment proceedings, following the precedent set by Leon Jaworski in Watergate.
Jerome Zeifman knows a little about Nixonian tactics. He served as chief counsel on the House Judiciary Committee during Watergate, helping to draft the papers to impeach President Nixon and writing many of the denunciations of Mr. Nixon given by congressmen on the floor of the House. He is also the author of a recent book on the subject, Without Honor, The Impeachment of President Nixon and the Crises of Camelot. As a life-long liberal Democrat who helped eject a Republican president from office, Mr. Zeifman has an interesting perspective on the current Democratic president, Whitewater, and the media: "I am appalled."
"As a Democrat I don't want to turn around and ignore all the principles that we stood for against Nixon. We went after Nixon because of the perceived abuse of power, not because we were certain we'd get a conviction of a felony," Mr. Zeifman explains heatedly.
His point is important. Some Washington pundits and presidential defenders would have us believe that unless Mr. Clinton can be convicted of a felony he should be left alone. Mr. Zeifman argues that such a position is rank hypocrisy. For a vindication of his views, Mr. Ziefman turns to the ultimate conservative, Edmund Burke. "The historic impeachment trial was led by Edmund Burke, who was seeking the removal of one of Mad King George's officers," he explains. "Burke set the terms for public accountability. 'Not upon the niceties of a narrow jurisprudence, but upon the enlarged and solid principles of state morality' were his criteria. It was in that spirit that Democrats and the media went after Nixon, and those principles have been abandoned."
"Take Susan McDougal," he continues. "She has refused to testify and is in contempt of court. That type of situation should have caused an angry reaction in the media. They should have demanded to know what she was hiding. During Watergate, The Washington Post and The New York Times helped bring Nixon down. Now the Post and the Times and the pundits on CNN are Clinton's defenders. It's chilling, and it's a great disservice to the American public."
But if the media and fellow Democrats disappoint Mr. Zeifman, Republicans like Senate Banking Committee chairman Alfonse D'Amato of New York worry him: "D'Amato's recent abdication of responsibility should not be the standard."
But it may be. Several weeks ago, The New York Observer reported that Mr. D'Amato has taken to trashing his own party. In a series of lectures held prior to the election at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, Mr. D'Amato said of House Majority Leader Dick Armey, "Tell that bag of wind he's not my mother. He never fed me." Now Mr. D'Amato is busy announcing that because Mr. Clinton won the election, he's also won the right not to be investigated by Mr. D'Amato anymore. The American Spectator's Mr. York says that the Senate hearings Mr. D'Amato conducted were "very revealing. He shouldn't back down now. He has a great hypocrisy problem."
A senior-level congressional staffer--who demanded anonymity because all things having to do with Whitewater have been marked off limits--insists that if Mr. Starr produces the goods, Congress will be ready. "We're just waiting on Starr right now," he assures. "It would be a mistake to think we're not prepared to continue these investigations." But according to Mr. Ziefman and others, the very fact that they are waiting on Mr. Starr is problematic.
One person who appears to have plenty of fight left--and knows exactly who he wants to fight--is Mr. Clinton himself. The day after he was reelected, he told a gathering of Democrats that he would quickly get to work taking out his political opponents. His words were, in fact, that he would "remove them like a cancer from political life."
For those Republicans so fond of the image of Bill Clinton as a baby-boomer softy given to crying and pouting and not much else, the message is clear: Welcome to the real world. As anyone in Arkansas could attest, Mr. Clinton can be powerfully vindictive. He is, in a word, sentimental. It was the Southern writer Flannery O'Connor who pointed out that there is no mind-set as capricious and dangerous as a sentimental one. One minute the sentimentalist allows a tear to fall, or proposes appointing a Republican to his cabinet, the next he speaks of excising the GOP like a malignancy.
The only way for congressional Republicans to resist such pressure is to summon the courage to hold the president to the standards set by Edmund Burke and more recently by the Democratic Party during the 1970s. If not, it's going to be a long four years for them.