Prologue: The Usual Rules
Democrats weren’t the only ones for whom Bill Clinton’s impeachment created a dilemma.
When Republican Governor George W. Bush ran for president in 2000, his campaign played Clinton’s impeachment as its background music. While his opponent, Vice President Al Gore, tried desperately to distance himself from his scandal-tainted leader, Bush hung the disgrace around Gore’s neck like an ethical millstone. Bush’s impeachment stiletto sliced subtly: I don’t think he ever uttered the unhappy “I” word. Instead, in almost all his stump speeches, Bush held up his arm dramatically and declared, “When I raise my hand on the Capitol steps next January, I will be doing more than taking an oath to protect the Constitution. I will be vowing to restore honor and integrity to the presidency.” The message and the connection couldn’t be any clearer.
George W. Bush liked impeachment and used it successfully. He just didn’t want to get any of it on him.
I experienced his aversion in my own doomed congressional reelection race that same year. As one of the first House Members to endorse Governor Bush’s presidential candidacy, I met with him in Washington one week after the Clinton impeachment trial ended. Putting his arm around my shoulder, he filled me with praise: “You did a great job in the impeachment trial, Jimmy, and I’m really proud of you. I’m going to do all I can to help you win in 2000 and keep your seat.” Impressively, Bush even knew that the makeup of my anti-impeachment Democratic district (home to many Hollywood movie studios and their employees) promised to make my reelection the toughest and most expensive House race in congressional history. To cement our connection, Bush pulled me in closely and whispered in my ear, “You avenged my father,” a reference to candidate Clinton defeating President George H.W. Bush in 1992.
When we met again a few months later, Bush repeated the same theme with the same arm thrown around my shoulder. “I’ll be there to help you,” he pledged to me. “We’ll campaign a lot together in your district.”
During the 2000 general election campaign, Bush (by now the GOP presidential nominee) brought his campaign to my district twice. Both times, my reelection team organized the rallies and turned out thousands of volunteers. Both times his campaign called at the last minute and asked me not to come, I honored each request, assuming it came from staff rather than from the grateful candidate who pledged to help me for doing the right, but unpopular, thing. Still, it stung later to learn that at each of those rallies, Bush looked out upon a sea of hundreds of “Rogan for Congress” signs and never once mentioned my name or asked anyone to help me. As one of my volunteers told me later, “It was like he came into the district of a congressman under indictment.”
After my defeat, I told House Majority Whip Tom DeLay I hoped the incoming Bush Administration would find a temporary spot for me until the school year ended the following June, when we planned to return home with our young children to California. Tom said he would call Karl Rove, Bush’s chief advisor, and have him take care of this “no-brainer” request. A couple of days later, Tom called back sounding embarrassed and angry. According to Tom, Rove told him, “We love Jim Rogan. He’s a hero. Nobody served in Congress with greater distinction. But Tom, you’re not asking us to nominate him for something, are you? With Senate confirmation required, and that whole impeachment issue? Don’t get me wrong. If it hadn’t been for impeachment, we probably wouldn’t be here. We just don’t want to bring up that subject now.”
When longtime Democratic lobbyist Jack Valenti (an old friend who supported me for an Administration position) heard about this, he complained to Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Leahy told Valenti that I served honorably during impeachment and did what I thought was right. Pat Leahy - - the Prince of Darkness in many Republican fund raising letters (including a few of my own) - - said that he would call Rove personally and offer to handle any nomination bumps I might encounter. It was only after receiving this assurance that the White House nominated me for a slot. Later, when I came before a Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate, they confirmed me unanimously.
What a bizarre dynamic: Democrats angry with me over impeachment; a Republican president grateful to me because of it. Yet only when angry Democrats interceded did the grateful Republican lift a finger to help me.
How do we explain this illogical scenario? I suspect it is because whenever America goes through a political cataclysm - - in this case, the impeachment of a president with a 73% job approval rating - - the usual rules no longer apply.
From the time President Clinton assumed office, he suffered an almost unbroken string of scandals. Through it all, we saw repeated examples of the usual rules not applying:
• In the mainstream media, Clinton (the sexual harassment defendant) became the victim, and the victim (Paula Jones) was dubbed “trailer trash”;
• Judge Kenneth Starr, the respected former federal judge charged by President Clinton’s own attorney general to investigate these scandals, was branded as the villainous out-of- control prosecutor prying into the personal lives of others;
• Monica Lewinsky, the young intern exposed and humiliated in a sex scandal with Clinton, defended him even after Clinton executed plans to have his close associates smear her in the press as a crazed stalker-whore;
• When other women came forward with credible claims of Clinton’s sexual misconduct, the well-known national “women’s groups” fell silent. Later, when pressed on the subject, these same groups defended the accused man and ignored the violated women - - even after he admitted lying about his behavior;
• The more Clinton sullied the dignity of his office, the higher his job approval poll numbers climbed;
• America demanded to know the truth, and then grew outraged at those who told it;
• In a true abandonment of the usual rules, a handful of politicians cherishing reelection as a top priority volunteered to defend an unpopular principle of law in the face of over 70% of the voters demanding they not enforce it, and threatening ballot box retribution if they did.
During Bill Clinton’s impeachment, the typical conventions of political engagement turned upside down. The usual rules did not apply, and because of it, history changed.
This is an inside account of what happened behind the scenes in Congress during that fractious battle when right looked wrong, wrong looked right, and indifference looked preferable to either.