On Monday the patience of the mild Mr Lake, for four years Mr Clinton's National Security Adviser, snapped with what he called a "political circus". Having refused every presidential entreaty to stick out his ordeal, he delivered a resignation letter declaring Washington "had gone haywire" and damning a system that "was nasty, brutish, but anything but short".
The White House said the grilling Mr Lake was subjected to before the Senate Intelligence Committee proved only that the confirmation process was "inexcusably flawed". But Richard Shelby, the Democrat-turned-Republican who chairs the committee, and led the inquisition, was unrepentant. The vetting process "should be rigorous," he said, and Mr Lake had not passed muster.
Few expected Mr Lake to throw in the towel now, after having put up with so much. Despite the sniping, he had majority support in the committee and almost certainly in the full Senate thereafter.
But new obstacles, notably press reports alleging the Democratic National Committee improperly lobbied the National Security Council and the CIA for favourable treatment for a Lebanese-American campaign donor, were threatening further delay, and Mr Lake decided he had been hung out to dry long enough.
He thus becomes the latest victim of the dispute over Democratic fund- raising for the 1996 campaign, into which the White House and the NSC are being sucked steadily deeper.
It is one reason for the delay in key ambassadorial appointments, notably to Paris and London, and for the new impasse in negotiations for a balanced budget.
But it has also long been clear the Republicans were determined to claim at least one scalp among Mr Clinton's second-term nominees, if only to prove they were masters on Capitol Hill and avenge themselves for past Republican nominees shot down by a Democratic Congress. And once the campaign- funds rumpus heated up, Mr Lake was always the most vulnerable link in the chain.
By Monday even Democrats were expressing astonishment that he knew nothing of FBI warnings last year to two NSC staffers that China might be seeking to suborn the US political process. If he could not keep abreast of such issues in the NSC, they argued, how could he claim the management skills to handle the country's far larger intelligence empire?
The biggest victim is again the CIA. Mr Clinton must move swiftly to find a replacement for Mr Lake, and the Intelligence Committee debacle probably increases the chances of George Tenet, acting director, who was once staff director for the committee and a senior NSC official, before moving to the number-two job at the CIA.
As a solid in-house choice, he could expect relatively speedy confirmation and for agency employees he would be a better-known quantity than other mooted candidates like Jamie Gorelick, deputy attorney-general in the first Clinton administration, the former Georgia senator Sam Nunn, and Richard Holbrooke, architect of the Bosnia peace accords.
None however has Mr Lake's access and long intimacy with the President. And whoever survives ordeal by Senator Shelby will have the dubious distinction of being the CIA's fifth director in six years, a list which does not include two nominees who withdrew their nomination. The job turnover is a measure of the disarray of an agency celebrated not for its quiet successes, but for front-page failures like the Ames espionage case.Reuse content