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History in the Making

January 14, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Now some overview and perspective on today’s events and to NewsHour regulars presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, journalist and author Haynes Johnson, joined tonight by David Brooks, senior editor the Weekly Standard. Doris, how are you going to remember this day?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, it was certainly a lot more serious and did have a gravity, I think, than the House proceedings did. But I still have problems somehow imagining that it’s one of those great historic days. Maybe it’s just that when you’re living in the middle of something, it’s hard to see it from the perspective of the future backward. Maybe the people after the Revolution and after the Civil War couldn’t imagine that they were living in historic times because they weren’t so great as those other times. But I think it’s more than that. I think it’s really the sense – I mean, as a kid really as I grew up and became an historian, I dreamed about being present at the Declaration of Independence, I dreamed about being there when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. And somehow, despite all the talk of rule of law and oath, some very powerful stuff, you still remember that this whole thing started because of Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones, and Linda Tripp, and somehow the stature of those people cannot rise to Thaddeus Stevens being carried in his chair or to Charles Sumner or to people of other times that did seem larger, and the issues seem bigger and the crisis for the country seemed larger, so I’m still having trouble realizing that we’re in the middle of an historic moment, and it doesn’t feel right. It feels diminished and small, rather than large and enlightening.

JIM LEHRER: David Brooks, how did it feel to you?

DAVID BROOKS: It felt a little boring. I must say if repetition is the key to education, then there was a lot of education going on. But I think the positive spin on that is that it was admirably boring. The 19th century British journalist Walter Bagett said government should be boring, parliamentary democracy should be boring, when you have got grand speculative minds you’ve got bad government. And when you saw Sensenbrenner, the rest, on the floor today, Hyde on the floor, you did not see great intellects, you did not see verbal wizardry, you did not see much profundity. But you saw some plow horses, plowing the hoe – plowing their row, going forward step by step, and it was a very simple case I felt the House made today, and that may contrast well with the White House case, which is filled with legal wizardry. It may be the case that the simple case wins out – or not wins out but looks good.

JIM LEHRER: And, Michael, the case has been made that this was a much more subdued, serious approach than was taken by these same people in the House of Representatives, when they came to the Senate something happened.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: More subdued but just as repetitive. It reminded me a little bit, Jim, of that scene in that great film by Alfred Hitchcock, “North by Northwest,” when Cary Grant is in the Indiana corn field, and that crop duster is trying to kill him and flies over him from every angle again and again and again and I might say in the end does not kill Cary Grant. And the problem here is that, you know, yes, it was boring, and yes, democracy sometimes should be subdued, especially in the Senate, but these are people having their last chance to make the case not only to Senators but to the American people, who have been very resistant to the idea that Bill Clinton should be removed and going over this again and again in a very uncoordinated series of presentations I think they missed a big moment. And one point it made to me was that the more they kept on repeating themselves and overlapping in the various things that the managers said it almost made the opposite case of what they were trying to prove – it suggested that this was one episode that they were trying to sort of milk every aspect of and in my mind’s eye I kept on thinking what would the Senate trial of Richard Nixon have been like? You would have had speeches on abuses of power all over the place – FBI, CIA, obstruction of justice in a very grand way. In a way, doing it this way almost made the case that this is a case of a crime that was limited to a series of incidents. It may well be grounds for removal but that was not something designed, I think, to move public opinion beyond where it is.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think it moved public opinion, Haynes?

HAYNES JOHNSON: No, I don’t, Jim, and that’s what’s interesting. There’s a disconnect here. We’ve all been saying essentially the same thing. Doris said it was smaller and diminished than it should have been, plow horse working his way through democracy and government should be dull, Michael with that wonderful analogy of the Alfred Hitchcock film and hiding away – we’ve all the clouds over us. But the fact is – I myself – we’ve all followed this thing so intimately for an entire year, and I found myself turning away from it, because it was over and over and over again, where we’ve been. And I do think in terms of just sheer drama – here you have this great moment – it is a great moment in history – it’s important, significant, the fate of the presidency and maybe for generations to come. The Republicans tried very hard to make that connection with history, and they decided E pluribus unum is up there, and the battles here for the Declaration of Independence and all the great monuments and the framers and yet when you finished it, they were sort of laboring through it, and I think it would have been much more effective (a) if you had one person making the case, you could identify with a narrative, much shorter, much crisper, and (b) we’ve all seen this before so he didn’t really go beyond it. The fear about salaciousness too, they get it in by Clinton, Clinton himself repeating all these things that they feared -

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Great sound bites.

HAYNES JOHNSON: Are great sound bites of Bill Clinton.

JIM LEHRER: But, David, let’s try to for a moment use our imaginations and say, okay, let’s say that the polls are right, that the public turned us off months ago and they tuned it back in today and let’s say – and this was their first really detailed look. What do you think would have happened? Are we too close to this?

DAVID BROOKS: I think we are too close. I’m not sure you can step back and say what is the first blush look. I mean, if you look at the way public opinion has shifted, in the very beginning Bill Clinton did that famous poll with Dick Morris. Would the public have affected perjury, and the Dick Morris poll showed no. You do the polls today. Did Clinton commit perjury? Most people say yes. I think in the 70′s a lot of people say yes. Should he be removed from office? No. But there has been a shift in public opinion dragged along by this process, but if I could just pick up on one thing about the dullness of the day, I think there was a kernel of romance in the day, a kernel that will be nurtured by the Republican Party. This is a party that is emotionally spent, that is very exhausted by its failure of the past several years. This is a great lost cause. They’re going to be able to say to themselves we fought for honesty, we fought for justice against the polls, against everything else. You know, you look to the 2000 Republican Convention. Henry Hyde mounts the podium. You can say the place going bananas. You can see this magnifying into an event, an important event in Republican Party history.

JIM LEHRER: No matter what the result is?

DAVID BROOKS: Even more if it’s negative. Even if they go down in defeat in 2000. They stood for principle against the polls. That’s the way movements are built based on this kind of lost cause.

JIM LEHRER: Doris, what do you think of that?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, you know, I think to a certain extent this was a very hard set of speeches to give. Most speeches are events that are designed to elicit an immediate response, and here you had the House Managers knowing that the Senators could hardly move; they weren’t even supposed to get up and mill around; they couldn’t respond. For most politicians to not have a response is like not having air to breathe, and I think the only thing that made it possible for them to deliver a pretty serious straightforward set of speeches today was because they’re accustomed to perhaps more than they would have been 130 years ago to talking in television, where again you don’t have a response, you’re just talking in front of a box. I can’t imagine Ben Butler, who in the Andrew Johnson trial that first day spoke for three hours screaming, haranguing, used to that kind of oratory of long hours where you needed to get a response, able to tone himself down to do this rather routine thing they did today, so I think in a certain sense they were boxed in. It’s hard to imagine. They couldn’t be screaming at the rafters. They couldn’t have been making great oratorical flights of fancy. They have to lay out the case, and they have to – they still get stuck in knowing that they have to deal with that case because they’re so upset that they really feel it’s true, what they’re saying, whether it rises to the level of impeachment or not. They want to get that on the record, and I think they did that.

JIM LEHRER: Haynes.

HAYNES JOHNSON: I think David’s right. We will see this played back at Republican conventions and standing on principle, that’s correct, and the politics of it. But the trial for the country’s – is to affect the country’s views of is there something new and here’s the peculiar thing – through the thread of all day was the need for more witnesses – every single piece – every time these people came forward, we need the witnesses, that’s why you have to be able to look at them, judge their credibility, ask these questions. They used the names of the people they want up there, and I think they’re – the country is conditioned to spectacle and identifying with personalities – the Nixon – Watergate impeachment – Sam Ervin and all the characters, Ehlrichman, Haldeman, you identified with them. Oliver North — he was elected because you could identify with him. Here you have – these witnesses have not appeared – except – to be so real – the president – then Gray, sort of sad-looking – holding up his hand.

JIM LEHRER: Michael, did you feel the ground moving toward witnesses today?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think they were certainly trying to move the ground toward witnesses, and I think it is moving in that direction but the problem is that there is the sense that they’re just trying anything to shake public opinion. Who would have imagined a year ago that we could have gone for a year like this and Bill Clinton’s public approval ratings would still be between 60 and 70 percent and the public so resistant to the idea of both impeachment and removal? They feel, of course, that if they bring out witnesses, that might be a way of moving public opinion, but that also should be something that could be done by these managers. What if you had had, for instance, the modern day equivalent of a Barbara Jordan? My guess is that she would have said a lot of things this afternoon that we would be remembering tonight. I don’t think I can remember a word that was spoken today.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of the one year, David, do you share the astonishment that a lot of people do, that we’re sitting here talking about this, and there is an impeachment trial one year later? Sensenbrenner, James Sensenbrenner went through and then he offered six, seven, eight, nine opportunities or so that the president had that he said at least the president could have prevented this and he didn’t do it, he didn’t do it, he didn’t do it. Are you astonished that we’re here?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. And I won’t be astonished now if I die and it’s still going on. It’ll be like that thing in Dickens’ “Bleak House,” that trial that goes on – our great grandchildren – Stonehenge will fall and – but I guess – I guess I think – well, maybe you should ask another question. I’ve lost my train of thought. I told a joke.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about this year, Doris? Put this thing in a – sitting here a year later, talking about this, because of what’s happened.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think three things will have to be asked. One is, how did an aroused minority able to move a process forward against the public will so much further than anyone would have predicted at the beginning, secondly, how did a president who was presumably so politically savvy allow it to get to this point without compromising, without reaching out to the moderates earlier than he was able to, and then I think thirdly, people will have to ask, what if this whole thing hadn’t been here, what might this year have been like, this enormous prosperity, relative peace abroad, a popular president, what might he have done? That’s the lost opportunity we keep forgetting about. We think he’s doing well by getting out of this but look at what he and we have all lost.

JIM LEHRER: Haynes.

HAYNES JOHNSON: I was thinking – I made a note to myself, Jim, where we were in January 1994 – not just a year ago – and this was when Whitewater broke. The American Spectator had written articles about the Trooper Gate and so forth. All of a sudden from January of 1994 – beginning his second term as President of the United States, through that spring – there was more coverage devoted to Whitewater than there had been to Watergate or any of the great scandals in American history, so we started – we’re now in the fifth year and here we’ve had a year of Monica, but it’s more than that. It goes back a long way, and I think there is a weariness in the public with no resolution. We’re going to get a resolution now – one way or another – soon. But it’s been going on so long, and it doesn’t seem – there’s no resolution about it, and I think that does affect people.

JIM LEHRER: You’re nodding.

DAVID BROOKS: I agree and I think Doris raises the right point that it was not only the Republicans pushing this but the White House and the White House continuing. You know, it’s not inevitable that Henry Hyde would lead this charge the way we saw today. He didn’t start out that way. He felt insulted by the White House, by the responses to the famous 81 questions by now, and you know, we look ahead, the White House, Joe Lockhart, the spokesman, likened the House report to a cheap crime novel – their written responses on Monday angered a lot of Republicans. They’re still doing the same very aggressive strategy, and that seems to me only pushes it onward. It seems to me the Republicans can’t do anything to create witnesses but the White House can if they’re too aggressive.

JIM LEHRER: Well, speaking of onward, that’s where we have to go now. Doris, gentlemen, thank you very much.