Dump President Clinton, as attractive an idea as that may seem to some at the moment, and we get President Gore—who already has become the next target for dumping.

Republicans are demanding that Attorney General Janet Reno appoint an independent counsel, à la Kenneth Starr, to investigate charges that Gore raised campaign funds on federal property. So even if we get rid of Clinton, the Republican assault on the Democratic presidency will not stop. When there is blood in the water, the sharks do not relent.

The existing evidence may not be sufficient to impeach Gore, but Starr has proved it’s possible to manufacture the crime of cover-up even where there is no underlying crime. And once independent counsels set up shop, there’s no telling what they might find worth investigating. Who thought Whitewater, Starr’s original mandate, would lead to Monica Lewinsky?

At the very least, Gore would be tied up, as is Clinton, answering questions, producing documents, and fighting to preserve the institution of the presidency. He would have no right to consult government lawyers; his closest aides and Secret Service agents could be subpoenaed; his staff would be afraid to take notes for fear of subpoenas. He would be an embattled, defensive President, distracted by relentless legal assault.

And looming behind this—assuming he wins reelection—is House Speaker Newt Gingrich, next in line for the White House. Gingrich? Yes, indeed. If Gore is elevated to the presidency, he must nominate a new vice president, who must be confirmed by both houses of Congress. The Constitution does not say how quickly that must happen. A Republican-controlled Congress has every reason to delay confirmation; each day there is no vice president is another day that Gingrich is a heartbeat away from the presidency. If Gore is driven from office too, we get President Newt. The rewards for dumping Gore are irresistibly tempting.

This is speculation at the moment. Clinton is not about to resign, even though he has crippled himself with his admission that he lied to the public for seven months, and he is even less likely to be impeached. Starr is expected to deliver a report on Clinton’s conduct to the House in three or four weeks. It may contain serious charges against the President, but at the moment Starr appears obsessed by the details of Clinton’s sex life. For all his piety, Starr is an example of that small-town salacious prudery that believes it can combat sexual indecency only by first studying it very, very closely.

“The man has become a pornographer,” says a White House official miffed at Starr’s leaks. “Why keep after the stained dress once the President has admitted the affair? I think Starr just wants to humiliate the President and his wife.”

One variant, suggested by former Daily News editor James Wieghart, is that Clinton could temporarily step aside under the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the Constitution on the grounds that he is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” because of Starr’s investigation.

If he survives Starr, he could resume office. If not, Gore stays in charge. This would not stop the Republican attacks on Clinton and Gore, but at least it would prevent the resurrection of the “Wag the Dog” charges that any decisive action Clinton takes—say, putting peacekeeping troops into Yugoslavia’s Kosovo province—is a public relations charade.

Clinton and a majority of the American people agree on one thing: they would like this horrendous story to go away. But it will not. We have to figure out how to live with it.

This Issue

September 24, 1998