Cover Story

Remembering 1998

Issue: "Year in Review 1998," Dec. 26, 1998

with reports from Bob Jones IV, Edward E. Plowman, Mindy Belz, and Chris Stamper - Sometimes, it seemed, the most significant news story of 1998 was not the president and Monica Lewinsky, nor the home runs and strikes, nor even those wacky Iraqis. It was head transplants. In April, Robert White of Case Western Reserve University announced it would soon be possible to graft a human head onto another body. The operation, something like an organ transplant for overachievers, had already been performed on monkeys. Within the year, Dr. White predicted, it would be possible to use the body of a brain-dead donor to prolong the life of another person's head. It is rumored a minor controversy erupted over whether such a procedure was in fact a body transplant or a head transplant. While it might be more accurate to call it a body transplant since the head stays put on the operating table, some cost-conscious executives must have noticed that the head, as such, did not have pants, and therefore had no pockets and no room for a wallet, and this deeply concerned them. Still, the announcement signaled a great step forward-in absurdity. And absurdity seems to be the dominant theme in the year's news stories: The President of the United States lies for months about an adulterous affair, so the man investigating him, Kenneth Starr, is "put on the hot seat" by journalists. The president finally admits to the affair and the coverup, so the opposition party takes a hit at the polls and House Speaker Newt Gingrich loses his job. And a new record was set last summer when tickets to the Spice Girls concert at Madison Square Garden sold out in 12 minutes-thus demonstrating the buying power of their core audience group, young girls ages 8-14. So if it seems that in 1998 the major dailies and stern newsweeklies were all taken over by renegade, caffeine-jagged staffers from the press report known as "News of the Weird," there's a reason. They were.

Pulling a rabbit out of a hat?

The president tried to play the part of a grim and determined world leader as he faced the television cameras on Wednesday, Dec. 16. But to many observers, the performance was more grim theater of the absurd than high drama. Mr. Clinton was speaking from the Oval Office, after all-announcing air strikes against Iraq from close to where he had carpet-bombed his marriage. And he spoke at a time when he had apparently lost his campaign to avoid impeachment. With a scheduled impeachment vote less than 24 hours away, moderate Republicans were announcing en masse that they would vote to impeach. Jim Leach of Iowa. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut. Sherwood Boehlert of New York. Robert Ney of Ohio-and many others. White House aides were gauging public reaction to possible last-ditch legal maneuvers, while Senate staffers were readying for the trial of the century. Then came the announcement from the White House. Which announcement? Not the one that Mr. Clinton would step down. Nor the admission that he had perjured himself. Nor even the claim that he was really, really, really sorry this time. Instead, Mr. Clinton surprised almost everyone by announcing an air war against Iraqi military targets-the same response he had put off month after month after month, while Saddam Hussein apparently prepared weapons of mass destruction. On Wednesday, Navy ships in the Persian Gulf launched some 200 Tomahawk missiles, aimed at facilities suspected of producing or housing chemical and biological weapons. With the aid of the British military, the United States announced it planned to continue the attacks for an unspecified duration. Just before the scheduled impeachment vote, President Clinton was finally getting tough. Even the big newspapers whose editorial pages supported the action conceded the timing raised questions. The president claimed his motives were purely military, the timing purely coincidental. The strikes had to begin on Wednesday, he argued, because the Muslim holy month of Ramadan would begin on Friday. But critics spoke of a desperate attempt to divert the nation's attention from the impeachment vote. Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) broke Washington custom by stating his opposition to the move even before the president spoke on television. "While I have been assured by administration officials that there is no connection with the impeachment process in the House of Representatives, I cannot support this military action in the Persian Gulf at this time," Mr. Lott said. Some reaction on the House side was even more outraged. "Cynicism is at an all-time high," said Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.): "This is the 'anything to keep my job' game." Ex-Marine Rep. Gerald Solomon (R-N.Y.) warned, "Never underestimate a desperate president." The strongest reaction came from Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). Claiming that Mr. Clinton was using American forces to prop up his crumbling presidency, he asked, "How many American soldiers and innocent Iraqi children will die so that this president can hide from justice?" Justice for Mr. Clinton was indeed delayed, at least for a while. Republicans, who remember well the debilitating effects of the anti-war movement during Vietnam, were loath to repeat the same mistakes. Even the bitterest critics of the bombing were careful to note that they supported American soldiers, if not the commander-in-chief. GOP lawmakers met behind closed doors for more than two hours Wednesday night to decide how to proceed with the impeachment debate. Though head counters believed they had the 218 votes needed to win, some feared that forcing a vote in the midst of a military action would appear unpatriotic and provoke a backlash. Earlier in the day, during a congressional briefing by national-security officials, majority whip Tom DeLay had asked why the House should not simply proceed with the business at hand. His question was greeted with boos and hisses. In Baghdad, meanwhile, children headed to school and government workers went to offices as usual after the first night of attacks. Downtown streets were busy with traffic. Mr. Hussein's whereabouts were unknown, but he appeared on television to condemn the "wicked people" who launched hundreds of missiles. Amid images of crumpled brick buildings in Baghdad, an Iraqi doctor said 30 people were wounded and two killed during the initial attacks. Having given himself a several-day impeachment delay, was there anything else Mr. Clinton could do to put off what even after the first night of bombing still seemed inevitable? Presidential spokesman Joe Lockhart betrayed the gallows humor of White House aides the previous week when he mused about whether the embattled president could pull a rabbit out of a hat: "There's a question of whether the rabbit will come out dead or alive." But Mr. Clinton received several pieces of good news. Although moderate Republicans generally were going against him, the president gained a new backer in Rep. Jay Kim (R-Calif.), a lame-duck congressman under house arrest in Washington for accepting illegal campaign contributions. Mr. Clinton also had a defender against the charges of bombing to delay impeachment: Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), a former federal judge. The "former" in his title is because Congress impeached, convicted, and removed him from the bench in 1989. Rep. Hastings said he told Mr. Clinton, "You have to do what you have to do." So for the president, the year 1998 came down to a defense by an impeached judge and a man who wears an electronic bracelet around his ankle to help authorities monitor his whereabouts. One last weird development in a year that seems so hard to believe.

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