Reflections on Impeachment, 20 Years Later

It was a tragedy for Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky and America. He could have averted it by apologizing.

I didn’t believe the story when I first heard it—presidents and staffers don’t carry on like that. When I came to see it was true, I was angry. I wrote angrily in these pages.

I see it all now more as a tragedy than a scandal. I am more convinced than ever that Mr. Clinton made the epic political miscalculation of the 20th century’s latter half. He had two choices when news of the affair was uncovered: tell the truth and pay the price, or lie and hope to get away with it.

If he’d told the truth, even accompanied by a moving public apology, the toll would have been enormous. He would have taken a hellacious political beating, with a steep slide in public approval and in stature. He would have been an object of loathing and ridicule—the goat in the White House, a laughingstock. Members of his party would have come down on him like a ton of bricks. Newt Gingrich and the Republicans would have gleefully rubbed his face in it every day. There would have been calls for impeachment.

It would have lasted many months. And he would have survived and his presidency continued.

Much more important—here is why it is a tragedy—it wouldn’t have dragged America through the mud. It only would have dragged him through the mud. His full admission of culpability would have averted the false testimony in a criminal investigation that became the basis for the Starr report and the two articles of impeachment the House approved.

.. The American people would’ve forgiven him for the affair. We know this because they’d already forgiven him when they first elected him. There had been credible allegations of affairs during the 1992 campaign. Voters had never thought highly of him in that area. His nickname the day he was inaugurated was “Slick Willie.”
.. If he had chosen the path of honesty, Americans wouldn’t have backed impeaching him, because they are adults and have also made mistakes and committed sins.

And we know Mr. Clinton would have been forgiven because in September 1998—after the Starr report was released, amid all the mud and lies and jokes about thongs and cigars—a Gallup poll asked, “Based on what you know at this point, do you think that Bill Clinton should or should not be impeached and removed from office?” Sixty-six percent answered “should not be.”

Bill Clinton, political genius, didn’t understand his country’s heart.

.. and the year of hell, the cultural catastrophe, followed. That’s what it was, a year in which 8-year-olds learned about oral sex from the radio on the way home from school, and 10-year-olds came to understand that important adults lie, angrily and consistently, and teenagers knew if the president can do it, I can do it. It marked the end of a certain mystique of leadership, and it damaged the mystique of American democracy. All of America’s airwaves were full of the sludge—phone sex and blue dresses. The scandal lowered everything.
.. It was a tragedy because in lying and trying to protect himself, Mr. Clinton was deciding not to protect America. And that is the unforgivable sin, that he put America through that, not what happened with Monica.
.. The Starr report ran 452 pages and contained an astonishing level of sexual detail, of prurient, gratuitous specificity. Congress could have withheld it from the public or released an expurgated version. It didn’t have to be so humiliating. But Mr. Clinton’s enemies made sure it was.
.. Almost immediately on receiving the Starr report, Congress voted to release it in full, “so that the fullest details of his sins could be made public,” as Ken Gormley writes in his comprehensive 2010 history of the scandal, “The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr.” They put it up on the web. Its contents wound up on every screen in America, every newspaper, every television and radio.
.. Lawmakers released the videotape of Mr. Clinton’s grand-jury testimony, so everyone could see the handsome presidential liar squirm.
Mr. Starr’s staffers said they needed extremely detailed, concrete specificity to make the American people understand what happened. At the time I assumed that was true in a legal sense. Now I look back and see mere blood lust and misjudgment.

I see the desire to rub Mr. Clinton’s face in it just as he’d rubbed America’s face in it.

Top to bottom, left to right, a more dignified government, one that cared more about both America’s children and its international stature, would have shown more self-restraint and forbearance. And there might have been just a little pity for the desperate, cornered liar who’d defiled his office.

.. It wouldn’t have so ruined the life of a woman who, when her relationship with the president commenced, was only 22. She paid a steeper reputational price than anyone. Charles Rangel, at the time a senior Democratic congressman, said on television that she was a “young tramp.” The White House slimed her as a fantasist. She went into hiding, thought about suicide.And in the end, 20 years later, she put the Clintons to shame.

.. Publicly for two decades she has reacted with more style and dignity than they, said less and with less bitterness and aggression, when they were the ones with all the resources, and a press corps eager to maintain good relations with them because Hillary would surely one day be president.

Monica told her side and kept walking, and even refrained from blaming her shaming on the Clintons. Feminists abandoned and derided her. She took it all on her back and bore it away. In my book, after all this time, she deserves respect.

Sometimes America gets fevers. They don’t so much break as dissipate with time. Twenty years ago we were in a fever. Others will come. The thing to do when it happens is know it’s happening, notice when the temperature is high, and factor it in as you judge and act, realizing you’re not at your best. Twenty years ago, almost none of our leaders were.

Dividers, Not Uniters

In a new book, Steve Kornacki looks back at the 1990s — and finds the roots of today’s polarization in the Clintons’ ascent.

..  the 1990s was until recently an invisible decade. “The holiday from history,” it was called, a “lull” where nothing much really happened, a candy-colored coma between the Berlin Wall’s fall on 11/9 and the 9/11 attacks less than a dozen years later.

.. The Red and the Blue, is a political procedural that sets out to explain how we went from giga-landslides in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s to Electoral College squeakers today, how Republicans disappeared from the coasts and Democrats died their final deaths in the South and Midwest.

.. it benefits from the context provided by Trump’s ascent, which has clarified that one big reason we’re seemingly reliving the 1930s today is because both the Left and Right spent the 1990s and early 2000s rehashing the culture wars of the 1960s and early ’70s.

.. Because cable and the Internet have so completely transformed American culture over the past two or three decades, it’s easy to forget (and younger people can’t even remember) just how norm-shattering Bill Clinton was, compared to the Greatest and Silent Generation leaders who came before him. To social conservatives and foreign-policy hawks, Clinton’s election was downright triggering, and deserved nothing less than full-on #Resistance. Historian Steven Gillon famously interviewed one who succinctly fumed that Clinton was “a womanizing, Elvis-loving, non-inhaling, truth-shading, draft-dodging, war-protesting, abortion-protecting, gay-promoting, gun-hating Baby Boomer!”

.. aside from Gary Hart, whose ill-fated career was recently reexamined in the Jason Reitman movie The Front Runner, America hadn’t had a youthful, truly sexualized major-party presidential nominee since JFK — until Clinton came along.

  • .. The Federal Reserve’s preference for financialization and neoliberalism was at its very peak under the influence of Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan.
  • Nearly half of Americans still thought “sodomy” — never mind same-sex marriage or civil unions — should be illegal.
  • And while America was pro-choice, huge percentages of voters demanded restrictions to abortion-on-demand.

The Red and the Blue gives an excellent Gen-X-plaining of just how systemically, institutionally, and culturally impossible it would have been for Democrats to move even farther leftward than they did back then — of how much damage their “too far left” brand had done to the party in the ’80s and of the disastrous political consequences of Bill Clinton’s attempts to govern from the left in 1993–94, as epitomized by Hillary’s attempt at health-care reform. He reminds his readers with his trademark aptitude for facts and figures that America in the 1990s was still very much living in what Sean Wilentz called The Age of Reagan.

.. He manages, for example, to nail the most salient point of the abusive relationship between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich: that it was at heart a love story, and/or a co-dependency worthy of Dr. Phil. One man could simply not have managed to stay in office without the other.

.. It was Clinton hatred on the social right that gave us Gingrich, and it was Gingrich’s surefire ability to trigger the libs that protected Clinton year in and year out. “Do you want him – or me?” became the basic campaign pitch of both men.

.. his Officer Friendly approach to the media is just too naïve by half, especially for someone who is a cable-news host with considerable experience in online journalism. In Kornacki’s telling, reporters merely report, offering just the facts or serving as quickie Greek choruses and footnote sources. This might work for a tenth-grade term paper, but for a book that seeks to illuminate the decade that saw the rise of the Internet, the birth of Fox News, unprecedented media consolidation, and what Eric Alterman called “the punditocracy” at the height of its influence, it’s entirely inadequate.

From highly influential anti-Great Society “Atari Democrats” like
  • Michael Kinsley,
  • Joe Klein,
  • Sidney Blumenthal, and
  • Robert Samuelson and proudly un-PC pundits like
  • Camille Paglia,
  • Ben Wattenberg,
  • Bill Maher, and
  • Andrew Sullivan to donor-funded think tanks like
  • Heritage and
  • Cato, an entire intellectual infrastructure was shaping the national narrative for what became Third Way Clintonism well before the Clinton era began. Yet most of these people and institutions do not even appear in Kornacki’s index, or if they do, they’re curtly dispensed with in one or two lines.

.. It’s possible that with Donald Trump’s attacks on the press (and with some people using criticism of “the media” as an anti-Semitic dog whistle), Kornacki didn’t want to even go there.

.. But a book on 1990s polarization that omits Steve Jobs, Roger Ailes, and Bill Gates from its index? One that effectively ignores the O.J. trial, Maureen Dowd’s gendered, campy, sexist (certainly by today’s standards), Pulitzer-winning coverage of Monicagate, and Clarence Thomas vs. Anita Hill?

.. writers as far apart as Ann Coulter and Eric Alterman blamed Al Gore’s loss in 2000 on the media’s hatred of him (and his hatred of them)?

.. Limbaugh’s pioneering tactic (soon perfected by Gingrich, Coulter, and Karl Rove) of branding anyone whose politics were even slightly to the left of, say, Sandra Day O’Connor or Dianne Feinstein, as a Loony Liberal, Radical Leftist, or Femi-Nazi. From Clinton and Dubya well into the Obama years, red-meat conservatives intentionally fuzzed the line between corporate social-liberals and the true hard left of Michael Moore, Pacifica Radio, and Thomas Frank, and Kornacki captures their strategy perfectly.

.. Aside from the Obamas themselves, no other politician would even remotely disrupt or challenge Clintonistas’ hold on the Democratic party for another ten or 15 years. But Clintonism could only continue as long as the true far-left remained repressed, and as long as the economy kept humming.
.. When a fist-shaking socialist senator from Vermont lined up an army of Millennials in formation behind him eight years after the dawn of the Great Recession caused in no small part by Clinton-era financial policy, it became crystal clear that Newt Gingrich had won the war.
.. When they exited the White House, the Clintons left behind a Democratic party that working class, rural, and/or religious whites had become almost allergic to, one more dependent on African-American and Latino voters than ever.
.. Donald Trump cruised to triumph in 2016 using all of the dog whistles and wedge issues that Gingrich, Rove, Buchanan, and Ross Perot had refined to perfection.
.. And just as education-conscious, socially liberal white professionals reacted against Gingrich’s and Buchanan’s reactionary rhetoric in the late ’90s, Trump’s Republican party has now been effectively evicted from places as once-synonymous with the GOP as Long Island, Maine, New Jersey, San Diego, and Orange County.

Authoritarianism: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)

John Oliver discusses the growing number of authoritarian leaders around the world, their common characteristics, and whether or not one of them is currently our president.

  1. Projecting Strength
  2. Demonizing Enemies
  3. Dismantling Institutions: The Press, Courts

‘The Enemy of the People’

Criticism of the media by a president is not necessarily a bad thing

Depending on your perspective, one of President Trump’s real talents, or one of his most baleful traits, is his knack for the zinger label, pinned on a political or institutional foe. “Crooked Hillary,” “Lyin’ Ted,” “The Swamp” — the labels often stick . . . and sting.

But who exactly is “the enemy of the people”? Trump maintains that he is not referring to the entire press, only to “fake news” coverage by mainstream-media outlets. Is such line-drawing appropriate? Even if the public at large may validly make such distinctions, should they be drawn by a president of the United States, or does that specter imperil constitutional free-press protections?

.. Before Trump zapped our politics with his lightning rod, it was a commonplace in conservative circles to complain about that most pernicious practice of the political press: the pretense of objectivity. No, we did not begrudge the New York Times and Washington Post their editorial pages, nor resent opinion pieces and programs clearly advertised as such. Our objection was to patently biased news coverage that was presented as if it were dispassionate, just-the-facts-ma’am reporting. The bias is seen and unseen, but pervasive. It is found in the reporting itself. It is intimated in the description of sources (e.g., conservatives always described as “conservative”; left-wing sources — the ACLU, SPLC, CAIR, etc. — described as civil-rights groups with no partisan agenda). Most important, it is concealed in editorial decisions about what gets covered and what does not, camouflaged by the thread that gets emphasis and the “lede” that gets buried.

.. By reporting this way, the media inculcate in the public the assumption that there is no other side of the story. The Left’s Weltanschauung is not presented merely as a worldview; it is portrayed as objective, inarguable fact, and any other way of looking at things is subversive, cynical, or psychotic.
.. Nietzsche was right that we are hard-wired to exaggerate when speaking about what ails us. That goes double for political discourse. To limn one’s political opposition as “the enemy” is common. It has been throughout history, and I’m sure I’ve done it myself. No more thought goes into it than into a sportscaster’s use of “warrior” to laud some running back who just gained 100 grueling yards. It’s just rhetoric. When we resort to it, we’re not intentionally trivializing the danger posed by actual enemies or diminishing the courage of real warriors.
.. Still, the older one gets, the easier it is to see why referring to partisan opponents as “enemies” is unhelpful. Over time, political coalitions shift. Notions about friend and foe change. To coexist and govern, we have to compromise, and casual condemnations of our opposite number as “the enemy” make compromise harder. When I was a prosecutor, I had genial relations with most of my defense-lawyer adversaries. We fought hard but saw that letting it get too sharp-elbowed, too personal, could rupture the working relationships needed to get through the case . . . and the next one. The stakes were high, but it was markedly less polarized than politics has become.
.. This president runs hot and cold in a nanosecond, so it’s probably a fool’s errand to analyze his rhetoric too closely —
  • one minute you’re “rocket man,” the barbaric dictator;
  • the next minute, you’re the “funny guy” with the “great personality” who really “loves his people,

not that I’m surprised by that.”

.. Topsy-turvy, to be sure, but Trump’s mercurial outbursts, his cavalier resort to words like “enemy” — words other presidents have been circumspect about — does not mean he perceives no difference between Jim Acosta and Osama bin Laden.

So . . . what does the president mean by “the enemy of the people”? More specifically, to whom is he referring? Well, there was an interesting exchange about that last weekend, during Trump’s sit-down interview with Fox News’s Chris Wallace.

.. In the discussion, Trump several times tried to clarify that when he refers to “the enemy of the people,” he is not speaking of all journalists; he is referring to a large subset of journalists that he calls “the Fake News.” According to the president, these are the mainstream-media outlets that align with Democrats and treat him as a partisan opponent, resulting in dishonest and inaccurate coverage of his presidency.

.. Now, you can agree or disagree with him on that, but he is entitled to his opinion. To my mind, there has been plenty of dishonest and inaccurate coverage of Trump. To be sure, there has also been plenty of honest and accurate coverage of the president saying things that are dishonest or inaccurate. Nevertheless, the sheer contempt in which this president is held by journalists is manifest. Even for those of us old enough to remember the coverage of Nixon and Reagan (as well as the Bushes), it is something to behold.

.. For one thing, the effort to delegitimize Trump’s presidency by claiming that he “colluded” in the Kremlin’s 2016 election-meddling has been tireless, and apparently effective. The effort was fueled by selective intelligence leaks and the modern media melding of opinion journalism with news reporting. After over two years of digging, investigators have lodged no collusion allegation; to the contrary, the indictments that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has filed tend to undermine any theory of a Trump–Russia criminal conspiracy. Yet the president remains under suspicion and the media routinely insinuate that Mueller’s mere issuance of indictments validates that suspicion — even though the indictments have nothing to do with Trump.

..  As Power Line’s John Hinderaker relates, recent polling by The Economist and YouGov found that nearly half of American women (48 percent) and fully two-thirds of Democrats (67 percent) actually believe that “Russia tampered with the vote tallies in order to get Donald Trump elected President” — notwithstanding that investigators have never even suspected Russia of tampering with vote tallies, for Trump or anyone else. (The investigation involves allegations that Russia hacked Democratic email accounts.)

.. As Wallace framed the matter, there is only one press, all the journalists are part of it, and no distinctions may be drawn. “We are all together . . . we are in solidarity, sir,” he told the president, adding that, for these purposes, there is no difference between CNN, the New York Times, and Fox. Even though Wallace acknowledged that some coverage of Trump is “biased,” he maintained that the press is a monolith; therefore, the argument went, to condemn a subset of journalists is to condemn the whole of journalism.

.. While he did not air them fully (it was, after all, an interview of the president), I imagine he worries that the “enemy of the people” formulation is a case of Trump wrongly conflating opposition to Trump with opposition to America. Perhaps the issue is not so much the drawing of distinctions between worthy and unworthy journalism, but rather that the president of the United States should not be doing the drawing. The president, clearly, is not just anyone. He is the highest official of a government that is constitutionally obligated to respect freedom of the press, to refrain from threatening it. If people hear an analyst decrying media bias, that is one thing; if they hear the president decrying “the media,” they may not grasp that he intends to rebuke only a subset of the media. They may not be so sure that the rebuke is good-faith criticism, as opposed to despotic intimidation. They may conclude that free-press principles are imperil

.. The fact that Trump’s bombast makes many of us wince — “enemy” — is a style point. If you don’t like it, do a better job running against him next time. After all, when vivid language is directed at conservatives, rather than at themselves, journalists are quick to tell us that life and progress in a free society require thick-skinned toleration of objectionable language and transgressive gestures. What’s sauce for the goose . . .

.. Before President Trump started using the phrase “the enemy of the people,” fair-minded people acknowledged media bias. Conservatives complained bitterly about it. These were not attacks on journalism; they were cris de coeur for real journalism. The president’s “fake news” and “the enemy of the people” epithets are best understood as a reiteration of these longstanding complaints in the barbed Trump style. This is no small thing. While the complaints are getting more of an airing than they have in the past, the president’s manner is off-putting to many people who were once sympathetic to the point he is making.

.. The mainstream press, meanwhile, is becoming more unabashedly hostile. At least that means there is more transparency, but is that a good thing? I don’t know. It would be good to be rid of the pretense of objectivity. But there are many reporters who do not pretend to be objective; they actually are objective, even if they have strong political views, even if they dislike the president for reasons of substance or style. We need those pros. We need to appreciate what they do, not reject real news because it may be news we don’t want to hear.

.. I do not lose much sleep over a president’s lashing out at what he perceives as, and what often truly is, biased reporting. This is not Turkey; a president would be impeached before a journalist spends an hour in prison for unflattering coverage. And I don’t worry much about whether criticism of a readily identifiable portion of the media harms the entire media as an institution. If journalists are worried about that, they should police their profession better. Jim Acosta hurts journalism more than he hurts Trump, and if the president is really as awful as many journalists contend, then simply asking his administration straightforward questions, rather than posing as “The Resistance,” should expose that.