Clinton In Crisis: Now we all know - so what's next?

FIVE DAYS THAT ROCKED THE WHITE HOUSE: Ambushed and outwitted by the rapid release of the Starr report, the President and his aides need desperately to rebuild a strategy and to make a persuasive case for his survival - to his own party, the Congress and above all the American public
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The Independent Online
ON WEDNESDAY MORNING, room H2-186 of the Gerald R Ford House Office Building was just another room in the warren of Congressional buildings around Capitol Hill. Not quite ordinary; it had combination locks, freshly installed by the Sergeant at Arms, and motion detectors, but then security has been increased everywhere since a gunman shot his way into the Capitol earlier this year.

But at 3.45 Wednesday afternoon, the room became the centre of explosive activity. Officials in the office of Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel investigating the affairs of President Clinton, telephoned the Sergeant at Arms to tell him a delivery was on its way. Two vans were already nudging their way through the afternoon traffic. They contained 36 boxes, two sets of the counsel's report and supporting documents, the result of eight months of legal probing, testimony, depositions and careful detective work.

By Friday afternoon, the report was let loose from the sealed room, speeding around the network servers of the Internet, flashing across the newswires, reprinted in newspaper supplements across the world and retailed in detail on every television network from Minnesota to Micronesia.

The contents of that room can never be put back inside. The world now knows - and is openly joking about - the cigar, the trysts in the Oval Office, the billets-doux. And the Congress, suppressing its prurience, is trying hard to focus on the much more serious allegations of witness tampering, obstruction of justice, abuse of power and perjury.

After eight months of speculation, leaks and pure invention, the investigation of Kenneth Starr is public knowledge, potentially the subject of impeachment proceedings that could end the career of Bill Clinton and bring Al Gore to the office where his boss played away the evenings with a 21-year-old. He is known as the Comeback Kid; but it will take more than his usual brightly honed skills to bring the President back from the brink this time.

When last week began, the President and his key political and legal strategists were in the midst of plotting his recovery. Mr Clinton flew back to Washington at the weekend from his triumphant trip to Ireland, a time when the city was all but empty as Labor Day marked the end of summer. On Tuesday, temperatures dropped sharply and it became possible, once more to breathe. The blue skies above Washington were alive with helicopters, the roads thick with official cars as Congress, too, made preparations to return. It was back to business.

The President was in trouble, and he and his aides knew it. The televised apology for his misdoings with Monica Lewinsky had not been enough; for many it had been an insult, lashing out at Mr Starr with too little in the way of apology. But this was to be the week when the contrition offensive swung into action. Meetings were being planned that would hopefully restore something of the President's tarnished credibility.

Crucially, bridges were to be built to Democrats in the Congress who - it had become increasingly clear - were deeply alienated. Worried that their foes would profit in November's elections, concerned that the President was on the skids, or just plain angry, they had started to speak out. The Cabinet, too, needed smoothing. Strategies were starting to be laid out.

BUT IF INFORMATION is power, Kenneth Starr was throwing the switches and sending enough current through the system to blow all of the fuses. It had been rumoured that perhaps he might be ready to notify the Congress of his intention to deliver the report; perhaps it would take place by Friday, but the conventional wisdom was that next week was more likely. Not so, as it turned out. And in politics, as in war, sometimes surprise is all. There were cordons thrown around the Capitol, swarms of cameras arrived, and to the amazement of tourists, Congressmen, journalists and White House alike, there it was, dumped on their doorstep in boxes: the high explosive that could take down the Presidency.

Mr Starr and his team had accelerated their work precisely because it was clear that the White House was getting its act into gear. David Kendall, Mr Clinton's lawyer, was working on the White House's own rebuttal document, and wanted the report delayed until he could see it. But Kenneth Starr had laid the legal groundwork for sending the stack of paper to Congress two months before, a sign that - while the pressure on him was its most intense, when critics in Congress and the media were decrying the delays and lack of progress - he was already clear in his own mind: there was enough material to justify a call for impeachment

It will not, of course, be him who decides that. It will be, among others, Henry Hyde, the 74-year-old silver-haired Congressman from the 6th District of Illinois who chairs the House Judiciary Committee. Mr Hyde embodies solid, civic Republican virtues; on the right of the party, a Navy veteran who worked his way up through local politics having dumped the Democrats, he represents a constituency that is just as rock-ribbed. His committee includes many of his ilk, and some who are further to the right, from the Republican party.

Richard Nixon's fate turned, ultimately, upon the moderate Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee in 1974, one of whom, William Cohen, is now Mr Clinton's Defense Secretary. It will be a trickier task for Mr Clinton to find those swing moderates if the House Judiciary Committee ever votes on impeachment.

Bob Barr from Georgia will certainly not be among them. He put forward a resolution calling for the President's impeachment as far back as last November, and the former CIA analyst leapt out of his chair to see the report arrive on Wednesday.

History was being made, as he said; and it seems that it is moving in his direction.

In the red corner, the Judiciary Committee contains many Democrats who are mirror-images. There is the pugnacious gay Congressman from Massachusetts, Barney Frank, with an acerbic wit that could burn holes in solid steel at 50 paces. It will be his job to mount rapid rebuttals of Republican claims. But while he is an ally of the President, a friend he is not. Indeed, Mr Clinton has pitifully few telephone numbers he can call for support in the Congress.

It was partly because of his lack of support on Capitol Hill that the President had mounted a two-part strategy against the arrival of the Starr report; but it went off at half-cock.

THE FIRST PRONG was the contrition offensive. On Weeping Wednesday, tears filled his eyes three times as he came forward with apologies first to House Democrats, then to Democrats at a lunch in Orlando, and again six hours later in Miami. He was not, as many people pointed out, sufficiently contrite when he spoke on television in August. There may have been several reasons for that. Afterwards, officials ventured that he had not wanted to seem weak when missile strikes on Afghanistan and Sudan were hours away; other officials said that they urged greater repentance on him, but he and Hillary believed that a blaze of defiance would play better with the public.

In any case, sorry he was not, in many peoples' minds, and that was to be corrected. A prayer meeting at the White House on Friday morning was already scheduled, a symbolic act of confession that could, officials hoped, go a long way to regaining his place in the public's hearts.

That seems too late now. The hardened hearts and arteries of the Judiciary Committee will not be greatly moved by tears. The gratuitous detail in the Starr report, the great range of detail, the lurid revelations, make the contrition offensive all but redundant.

The second half of the White House strategy was, and is, politico-legal. The meetings with the House Democrats were not just touchy-feely, despite the reports afterwards, littered with words like "closure', "pain" and "warmth". The support of the Congressmen even from the President's own party cannot be counted on. The President aimed to recruit them as allies, while preparing a legal offensive once the report arrived on Capitol Hill. It was intended to rebut the claims of the Starr report in detail, wipe each one out, and present a very different picture: redefine the problem.

This prong, too, was badly blunted by the vast sweep of sexual detail in the Starr report, which has taken all the attention. Mr Kendall's rebuttal was a weak and mewling infant besides the graphic sexual detail in the real thing. And in any case, the organisational thrust behind it - the appointment of staff, the legal detail - remains largely undone, and it is getting late in the game.

Abe Lowell, a brilliant legal brain, has been appointed as the chief impeachment counsel to the Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee. Mr Lowell is a rare talent even in a city where there are a total of 83 pages of lawyers in the Yellow Pages. But the key decisions in the days ahead will be made by politicians, not lawyers.

Impeachable offences, wrote Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist, the groundwork for constitutional studies, "are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated political, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself". In one sense, the end of Mr Starr's enquiry delivers clarity, taking the action out of the sealed grand jury rooms, the boxes, the locked chambers, and placing it out in the open. In another, it makes things more indefinable yet: everything is up for grabs once the report hits Congress.

Yet the White House is woefully ill-prepared for this. It had been moving towards the appointment of a new official to run legislative liaison and the legal blitzkrieg after the report landed - an "uberlawyer," as the Washington Post delightfully called it. But the decision has still not been made. For now, strategy is in the hands of John Podesta, the deputy chief of staff, and Mr Kendall.

It has been no secret that the lawyers and the politicos have frequently disagreed on strategy over the last months, and there is no general, no James Carville, the man who brilliantly ran the 1992 campaign and successfully squashed the Gennifer Flowers affair, no single co-ordinating force behind the counter-attack. Without some guiding plan, it will be difficult to command the attention of Congress, or of the public at large.

Above all, there is the question of the American people. So far, their reactions to the scandal that has convulsed Washington have been contradictory, unpredictable. They may not trust the President as a man, but as a chief executive, they are happy with their choice. Now that the breadth and depth of Mr Clinton's acquaintance with the 21-year-old intern is clear, however, they will be unimpressed.

This is still, by and large a conservative country where adultery is not liked; where sodomy, including oral sex, is technically illegal in some states. The list of offences compiled by Mr Starr is detailed, heavily footnoted, but also clear and coherent. It was written, not by Mr Starr, but by a lawyer-cum-journalist who has deployed a convincing mixture of legalese and narrative. It will be in every newspaper this weekend; the voters will not like it.

There is still a glimmer of hope. When it becomes clear that impeachment is on the cards - and it must be, now - people may flinch. What is being discussed would overturn the verdict of the people, removing from the White House the man who was put there by election in 1992, and kept there in 1996. There is enormous reverence for the office of president, despite the mores and manoeuvres of those who have occupied it. It may be that there is not the stomach for impeachment.

The President's best hope must be that he can push his case as hard as possible, and work out a deal that stops short of impeachment. But to get that far will require energy and organisation; and last week, as it was outflanked and flattened, the White House did not look to have much of either.

The real question must be whether after everything that the Starr report has laid bare there is still, in the hearts of Mr Clinton and his key aides, the will to survive.