Rough Edges: My Unlikely Road from Welfare to Washington
It wasn’t the first time unwelcome guests had invaded the Marble Room.
A hideaway lounge next to the United States Senate chamber, the Marble Room has a “Senators Only” rule that is considered sacred. Through the 1800s, senators allowed pages and clerks to enter only to shoo out bats. During the Civil War, Union troops camped inside the Capitol building; the Massachusetts Sixth Regiment seized the Marble Room and used it as a meat locker, covering the cold floors with smelly ham and bacon slabs while a Senate doorkeeper begged them tearfully not to grease up the walls and furniture. Aside from these occasional nuisances - - flying parasites, national rebellions, and the like - - the Marble Room remained the senators’ exclusive domain . . . until we showed up.
In 1999, the senators grudgingly relinquished their beloved sanctuary to the thirteen managers selected by the United States House of Representatives to prosecute the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton. For almost six weeks, it became the impeachment managers’ war room; I’m sure the grumpy senators would have preferred a return of the bats. Only Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman was a good sport, complaining playfully to me that we’d taken away his place to do push-ups between votes.
Regrettably, there was nothing playful about our occupation. For the first time in American history, the House had impeached a popularly elected president. The United States Senate would determine his fate in a live, worldwide-televised trial. As a freshman congressman, my House colleagues chose me to be one of the prosecutors presenting the case for Clinton’s conviction and removal from office.
On January 14, 1999, I sat in the Senate chamber as the trial began. Every poll showed (and every pundit expected) two foreordained results. First, the president would prevail easily; the outcome never was in doubt. Second, polls showed there was a likely political casualty:
Calling impeachment unpopular back home in California is an understatement. Most voters in my Los Angeles-based district (home to many Hollywood studios) loved President Clinton. As a Republican representing a Democratic district, I was on thin ice already, winning each of my two elections to Congress by a razor-thin 50 percent margin. As the impeachment vote loomed, polls showed 75 percent of my constituents wouldn’t vote for me again if I stood against the president.
Satisfied that there were enough votes to pass impeachment without my help, Republican leaders urged me to vote “no” and avoid a constituent backlash. But for me, as a former gang murder prosecutor and state court judge, “throwing” my vote wasn’t an option. This was a matter of grave constitutional importance. If my options were defending the law or defending my political hide, I’d defend the law, vote my conscience, and take my chances.
On the first day of trial, as the time for my two-hour opening statement approached, I slipped out to grab a few silent moments in the Marble Room. Sinking into a big chair, I closed my eyes and listened to the piped-in speech of my colleague, Congressman Asa Hutchinson, as he outlined the history of Clinton’s obstruction of justice. When Asa’s presentation ended, it would be my turn to argue the evidence of presidential perjury. I couldn’t help but reflect on the irony: Bill Clinton and I had both spent our lives trying to get to Washington. After committing perjury and obstructing justice, the president expected to salvage his job; for arguing that those offenses violated his constitutional oath of office, I expected to lose mine.
Feeling weary from late nights of preparation and little sleep, I leaned back and closed my eyes. Soon Asa’s voice faded as my mind drifted to many things, but mostly to memories of Memphis.
[Memphis, Tennessee, December 1978]
As a college kid applying to law schools, I was a longtime political junkie, a liberal Democrat, and itching to run for Congress someday. In 1978 I went to the Democratic National Midterm Convention in Memphis and attended a panel workshop headlined by Senator Edward Kennedy. Although Kennedy gave a great speech, I found myself more intrigued by the panel’s likeable, bushy-haired young moderator. I’d read a news story about him before the panel, so he was familiar to me beforehand. Only five years out of law school himself, the young moderator had rocketed to the top of his state’s political ladder. I wanted to know how he’d done it.
Hours after Kennedy and most of the spectators left, I hung around to meet the young moderator. It was late when the forum ended; I introduced myself, explaining that I hoped someday to follow him into politics, and asked him if he thought law school was a good foundation for this ambition. A law professor himself, he smiled at the question. Then he began a ten-minute monologue, telling me that a legal education opened endless possibilities, especially in the political world. Stressing that politics gave one the chance to do the most good for the most people, he described how he’d parlayed his law degree into winning statewide office. “Law school gave me the opportunity to run for Congress soon after graduation, and then I become state attorney general just two years later, and last month I was elected our state’s youngest governor in history,” he said with a sense of well-deserved pride.
As he talked about his background, I soaked up our similarities. We both were born into fatherless homes: his father had died before he was born, while my father abandoned my unwed mother when he learned she was pregnant. Each of us was raised by our grandparents in our formative years. Later we each went to live with mothers who married and divorced alcoholics. Both of us had witnessed our mothers’ lives of hardship: his mother struggled as a nursing student, while mine raised four kids working odd jobs and collecting welfare and food stamps. Finally, we both grew up wanting to go into politics: a president he met as a boy inspired him, while a vice president I met as a boy inspired me.
I listened as he urged me to go to law school, focus on the noble goal of public service, and keep him posted on my progress. I was so impressed; how could one not admire this charming, gracious young leader who accomplished so much already, and who held so much more promise? He left me wanting to be just like him.
Through a strange twist of history, he and I were reunited twenty years later. Unhappily, though, when our paths again crossed it was as combatants, not colleagues. The young moderator who encouraged me to go to law school and enter politics on that long ago night in Memphis was the attorney general of Arkansas.
His name was Bill Clinton.
“Jimmy, it’s time.”
A colleague’s voice snapped me back to the awaiting task. Asa Hutchinson had finished his presentation; now it was my turn. Leaving the Marble Room, I returned to my seat in the Senate chamber as the senators, House managers, and the president’s lawyers took their places. Just before the trial resumed, fellow manager and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde sensed my unease. Patting my arm, his tone was fatherly: “Listen, Jim, I’m very proud of you. What you’ll do here today is history. More than that, you will remember this speech for the rest of your life. Someday your children will watch it on television, and your grandchildren, and your great-grandchildren . . . ”
As I nodded appreciation for the encouragement, he finished his sentence with a wink: “ . . . so don’t fuck it up!”
I was still chuckling when the Chief Justice of the United States, William H. Rehnquist, called the impeachment court back to order. Then he intoned solemnly, “The Chair recognizes Mr. Manager Rogan.” Rising to address the Senate, I couldn’t help but think again about Memphis, and of the long, unlikely road that brought me from welfare to Washington.