On an evening late in April in Washington, some three hundred and fifty survivors of what they saw as a fight for the soul of the republic gathered at the Mayflower Hotel to honor Representative Henry J. Hyde and the twelve House managers who, under his leadership, had carried the charges of impeachment to the floor of the Senate. C-SPAN caught the distinctive, familial fervor of the event, which was organized to benefit the Independent Women’s Forum, an organization funded in part by Richard Mellon Scaife and the “women’s group” in the name of which Kenneth Starr volunteered in 1994 to file an amicus curiae brief arguing that Jones v. Clinton should go forward.
Live from the Mayflower, there onscreen were the familiar faces from the Sunday shows, working the room amid the sedate din and the tinkling of glasses. There were the pretty women in country-club dinner dresses, laughing appreciatively at the bon mots of their table partners. There was the black-tie quartet, harmonizing on “vi-ve la vi-ve la vi-ve l’amour” and “Goodbye My Coney Island Baby” as Henry Hyde doggedly continued to spoon up his dessert, chocolate meeting mouth with metronomic regularity, his perseverance undeflected even by Bob Barr, leaning in to make a point.
The word “courage” was repeatedly invoked. Midge Decter, a director of the Independent Women’s Forum, praised Henry Hyde’s “manliness,” and the way in which watching “him and his merry band” on television during the impeachment trial had caused her to recall “whole chunks” of Rudyard Kipling’s “If.” Robert L. Bartley, the editor of The Wall Street Journal, had found similar inspiration in the way in which the managers had “exposed truths to the American people, and they did this in the face of all the polls and focus groups, and they were obviously doing an unpopular thing, and I think that is why they deserve our greatest credit.” The words of Henry V before the Battle of Agincourt were recalled by Michael Novak, as they had been by Henry Hyde in his closing statement during the Senate impeachment trial, but on this occasion adapted to “our Prince Hal, our own King Henry”: “He that outlives this day, and comes safe home, will stand at tiptoe when this day is named…. Then shall our names, familiar in his mouth as household words, Henry the King, Rogan and Hutchinson, Canady, Cannon, McCollum, Lindsey Graham, Gekas, Chabot, Bryant, Buyer, Barr, and Sensenbrenner.”
This evening could have seemed, for those who still misunderstood the Reagan mandate to have been based on what are now called “social” issues, the last redoubt. Familiar themes were sounded, favorite notes struck. Even the most glancing reference to the depredations of “the Sixties” (“…according to Sean Wilentz, a scholar who exemplifies all the intellectual virtues and glories of the Sixties…”) proved a reliable crowd-pleaser. In deference to the man who had not only sponsored the Hyde Amendment (banning Medicaid payments for abortions) but who had a year before testified as a character witness for a defendant accused of illegally blockading abortion clinics (“He’s a hero to me,” Hyde said, “He has the guts I wish more of us had”), the “unborn” were characterized as “the stranger, the other, the unwanted, the inconvenient.”
Mentions of “Maxine Waters” were cues for derision. “Barney Frank” was a laugh line that required no amplification. The “loneliness” of the shared position was assumed, and proudly stressed. Yet the mood of the evening was less elegiac than triumphal, less rueful than rededicated, as if there in a ballroom at the Mayflower was the means by which the American political dialogue could be finally reconfigured: on the sacrificial altar of the failed impeachment, in the memory of the martyred managers, the message of moral rearmament that has driven the conservative movement to what had seemed no avail might at last have met its moment. “As we were coming in,” William J. Bennett told the guests that night, “I said to my friend Dan Oliver, I said ‘Good group.’ Dan said, ‘Good group? This is it, pal. This is the army. This is all of it.”’
The notion that a failed attempt to impeach the President might nonetheless have accomplished exactly what it was meant to accomplish, that the desired phoenix might even then be rising from the ashes of acquittal, might have seemed to many, in the immediate wake of the November 1998 elections, when the disinclination of the American people to see the President impeached translated into the loss of five Republican congressional seats, wishful. “It’s pretty clear that impeachment dropped off the public’s radar screen,” Henry Hyde told a Los Angeles Times reporter on election night as he realized he was losing not only his anticipated mandate but five of his votes. The next morning, in the O’Hare Hilton, he told three aides that his Judiciary Committee inquiry, which party leaders had inexplicably construed as so in tune with public sentiment as to promise a gain of twenty seats, would have to be telescoped, and impeachment delivered out of the House while his lame ducks could still vote.
Over the next several weeks, as they contemplated the unexpected hit they had taken by feeding the greed of their conservative base for impeachment, Republicans would float many fanciful scenarios by which the party could be extricated from its own device. Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania argued on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times for “abandoning impeachment,” in effect handing off this suddenly sticky wicket to the courts, where, since not many lawyers saw a makeable case for perjury, it could conveniently dematerialize. Robert Dole laid out a plan based on the distinctly improbable agreement of the President in his own censure. Even Henry Hyde saw a way for the President to save the day, by resigning: “I think he could really be heroic if he did that. He would be the savior of his party…. It would be a way of going out with honor.” By mid-December, former Senator Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming was expressing what had become by default the last-ditch gamble of most Republicans, which was that any hemorrhaging they were suffering outside their conservative base could be contained before 2000 by the putative inability of these less ideological voters to remember that long: “The attention span of Americans,” Simpson said, “is ‘which movie is coming out next month?’ and whether the quarterly report on their stock will change.”
This casual contempt for the electorate at large was by then sufficiently general to pass largely unremarked upon. A good deal of what seemed at the time opaque in the firestorm that consumed the attention of the United States from January of 1998 until the spring of 1999 has since been illuminated, but what remains novel, and unexplained, was the increasing histrionic insistence of the political establishment that it stood apart from, and indeed above, the country that had until recently been considered its validation. Under the lights at CNN and MSNBC and the Sunday shows, it became routine to declare oneself remote from “them,” or “out there.” The rhetorical expression of outrage, or “speaking out,” became in itself a moral position, even when the reasons for having spoken out could not be recalled. “…Whether or not it happens,” Robert H. Bork said to The Washington Post in December about impeachment, which he had favored, “I will still think I was right…. I just spoke out. I think on a television show, maybe Larry King. I wish I could recall what I was concerned with, but I can’t at the moment.”
The electorate, as anyone who turned on a television set since the spring of 1998 had heard repeatedly, was “complicit” in the “corruption” of the President, or of the administration, or of the country itself, which was therefore in need of the “purging” to be effected, as in myth, by the removal of the most visible figure on the landscape. “It would be an enormous emetic—culturally, politically, morally—for us to have an impeachment,” the Reverend John Neuhaus, editor of the conservative monthly First Things, told Michael Powell of The Washington Post. “It would purge us.” The reason the public was “complicit,” and the country in need of “purging,” was that the public was “materialistic,” interested only in “the Dow,” or, later, “their pension funds.”
The reason the public was “materialistic” was that the public had, well, no morals. “My wife likes to say they must be polling people coming out of Hooters on Saturday night,” Senator Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire said at the time he was announcing his bid for the presidency. “I will not defend the public,” William J. Bennett told The New York Times in February of 1999, after Paul M. Weyrich had written to supporters of his Free Congress Foundation that since the nation was in the grip of an “alien ideology” they should abandon the idea that a moral majority existed and instead take steps to “quarantine” their families. “Absolutely not. If people want to pander to the public and say they’re right they can. But they’re not right on this one.”
“What’s popular isn’t always what’s right,” Representative J.C. Watts of Oklahoma said, arguing in the House for impeachment. “Polls would have rejected the Ten Commandments. Polls would have embraced slavery and ridiculed women’s rights.” On the weekend in January when the “favorable” rating of the Republican Party dropped to 36 percent, the lowest since Watergate, Senator Phil Gramm said on Meet the Press that the people of Texas “didn’t elect me to read those polls.” Not even when the bumper stickers of the John Birch Society were common road sightings had we been so insistently reminded that this was a republic, or a “representative form of government,” not a democracy. For the more inductive strategists in the movement, the next logical leap was obvious: since a republic depended by definition on an electorate, and since the electorate at hand had proved itself “complicit,” the republic itself would be increasingly viewed as doubtful, open for rethinking. “The Clinton affair and its aftermath will, I think, turn out to be a defining moment that exposed the rot in the institutions of American republican government,” Charles Murray wrote in The Weekly Standard in February. “Whether the response will be to shore up the structure or abandon it remains an open question.”
On the morning of February 11, 1994, Michael Isikoff, the author of Uncovering Clinton: A Reporter’s Story and at that time a reporter for The Washington Post, received, from the conservative strategist Craig Shirley, a heads-up on what would be said that afternoon at the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Omni Shoreham, where a woman brought to Washington by Cliff Jackson, the Hot Springs lawyer who orchestrated Troopergate, was scheduled to give a press conference. Isikoff went over to the Shoreham, witnessed what would turn out to be the debut appearance of Paula Jones, and the next morning conducted a three-hour interview with her, in a suite at the Shoreham where she was flanked by her husband and her then lawyer, Danny Traylor. Isikoff asked Paula Jones about her eighteen-month-old son, Madison, and told her about his own baby daughter. He asked her whether her parents had been Democrats or Republicans, a point about which she was uncertain. “I guess any man probably would be more [interested in politics] than a woman,” she said. “That’s just not my interest in life.” Isikoff tells us that he questioned Traylor and Jackson independently about their initial involvement, and reports that the answers they gave “point toward an innocent explanation.” If Isikoff did indeed choose to ask Paula Jones herself why, given her lack of interest in politics, her lawyer had hooked her up with Cliff Jackson and Craig Shirley and the Conservative Political Action Conference, he chose not to share her answer, although he renders certain details from that initial interview with some avidity: