As the House Judiciary Committee finished its work last week, drawing up impeachment articles for only the third time in history, many Democrats wondered what went wrong. How could Bill Clinton, who previously had looked invulnerable, now be scrapping for his political life by parading two days' worth of panelists before the committee?
Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) may have provided the answer in the midst of scolding a panelist: "One of the faults of the White House, I think, is that they have a tendency, maybe this president personally, perhaps, to break out the champagne or light up the victory cigar a little bit early sometimes."
In Democratic circles all over Washington, the early champagne was put back on ice and more than a dozen pro-Clinton witnesses were uncorked for Capitol Hill consumption, breaking nearly a year of official silence. Too bad for those few Americans still interested in knowing the truth, the 15 witnesses had little or nothing to say about the facts of the case. Instead, they presented the committee with expressions of the president's regrets, comparisons to Watergate, and historical arguments designed to show that whatever might have happened between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, it didn't merit impeachment.
The president's point man over two days of testimony was Greg Craig, a State Department lawyer brought in several months ago to coordinate the White House's defense strategy. "As we begin this undertaking, I make only one plea to you," said Mr. Craig at the start of his testimony. "Open your mind; open your heart; and focus on the record."
But the record, as it turned out, was seldom open to discussion. Rather, the committee was told again and again that lying about sex-if, indeed, the president had lied-was no cause for impeachment. "Mr. Chairman, I am willing to concede that, in the Jones deposition, the president's testimony was evasive, incomplete, misleading, even maddening-but it was not perjury," said Mr. Craig in a typical exchange.
Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) disagreed. Last week he asked the committee to vote to allow all House members to view the president's videotaped deposition in the Paula Jones case. Only Judiciary Committee members had previously seen that evidence because it was part of a confidential court proceeding. Republicans believe that in light of later developments, the tape will clearly show Mr. Clinton clearly lying in his sworn testimony.
One witness conspicuously left out of the proceedings was David Kendall, the president's personal lawyer. It was Mr. Kendall's bullying, belligerent line of questioning several weeks ago that caused even the mild-mannered Ken Starr to flare up in defense of his staff. The Washington Post hypothesized that Mr. Kendall's absence was due to the White House's strategy of turning the hearings into a debate over constitutional law; a private lawyer would simply be inappropriate in that case.
The more likely explanation, however, is that Mr. Kendall was doing more harm than good to the president's cause. Like Bob Bennett before him, his attacks on anyone who dared to defy the White House struck many as reckless and unconscionable. Indeed, until his televised cross-examination of Mr. Starr, the cause of impeachment looked DOA. The slightly more contrite tone of last week's hearings was crafted to appeal to about two dozen Republican moderates who could swing the vote the president's way. Rep. Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.) was the first of the undecideds to announce he would oppose impeachment. Although the White House hoped that would start a stampede, most other wavering Republicans seemed to heed Mr. Hyde's admonition to "keep their powder dry" until the roll call vote.
Some continued to hold out hope that such a vote could be avoided. Former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, a liberal Republican, outlined for the Judiciary Committee a punishment "more than merely censure"-but less than impeachment. He suggested a written report on Mr. Clinton's conduct; written acknowledgment of wrongdoing by the president; a fine paid by Mr. Clinton; and leaving open the possibility of criminal prosecution once Mr. Clinton leaves office.
But any such compromise looked unlikely. The White House, for its part, was taking nothing for granted. With the president gearing up for a quiet but intense lobbying effort over the weekend, the hand-to-hand battle for votes promised to go down to the wire-and down in the history books.