TOPICS > Politics

Crisis in Perspective

January 22, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now some further perspective on this story from NewsHour regulars Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, Journalist/Author Haynes Johnson, and David Gergen, editor-at-large of U.S. News & World Report and the conductor of our Gergen Dialogues. He served in the first Clinton administration, as well as with Presidents Ford, Nixon, and Reagan. They are joined tonight by Journalist Elizabeth Drew, author of many books, two on the Clinton presidency, another one on the Watergate crisis and impeachment. All right, David, so what’s going on here?

DAVID GERGEN: Jim, I think it’s apparent that we’re facing either the worst smear or the worst act of self-destruction by any President in this century. I don’t think we know the answer yet, and I think it’s wise to be cautious. I think everybody who’s appeared here tonight–we’ve had two, in fact, denials from the principals of the case yesterday with you, with the President, today by Vernon Jordan, a man of very substantial reputation, which raises the question: Are these tapes–do they represent the fantasy of a star-struck young woman, or the product of a delusional mind?

On the other hand, you know, the charges, themselves, are very serious. There’s a lot of circumstantial evidence which raises questions, and that, you know, the other side of this is, do we have a President who was in the lawsuit from a former employee in Arkansas, who lacks the self-discipline to stay away from another employee here in Washington, a young girl, a 21-year-old girl, in the White House? And I don’t think we know the answer, and I don’t think we’re going to know the answer for a while.

JIM LEHRER: Questions, questions. Haynes, do you agree with David, it’s either the largest smear, or the largest destructive act, self-destructive act in the history of the presidency?

HAYNES JOHNSON: I do, and I don’t think–I think either or, it’s going to be one way or the other. Whatever happens on this case–you know, Jim, it’s been 25 years since Watergate. I must say myself–

JIM LEHRER: We just talked about the anniversary.

HAYNES JOHNSON: I know, and this idea that all of us who lived through it, watched it, participated in it, and followed it day by day until this moment, this week, I never thought–all the comparisons with Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon and Watergate were false, and they didn’t talk about a constitutional crisis, but this week has the feel–the feel of the same kind of frenzy. And you have a sense that something’s in the air. We don’t know what the truth is. And the irony, the Watergate was a constitutional crisis over great abuses of power of the institutions of government–if this brings Bill Clinton down–if–big, historical if–it is–and we don’t know the answer to that–it’s because it’s low, sordid, extremely depressing material over a sordid, sleazy affair in which someone lied to cover it up.

JIM LEHRER: Elizabeth, same feeling of Watergate?

ELIZABETH DREW: Oh, I think it’s the same feeling of frenzy. If anything, it’s–everything has sped up now because we have cable going 24 hours a day and night, story after story. And so there’s an acceleration of information, rumor, speculation, and so on. But I don’t think it feels at all like the Watergate period, which was very frightening. There, we were talking about whether the Constitution was going to hold. We were talking about the term in the Constitution is “high crimes and misdemeanors.” What–the articles of impeachment, which is the indictment, that were voted on President Nixon all had to do with patterns of behavior. Article I was just not one obstruction of justice but a long list of obstruction of justice, suborning of perjury. Article II, failure to see that the laws in the United States were faithfully executed. Daniel Elsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers, his psychiatrist’s file was raided by some goons hired by the White House. This was very frightening, and he was–another article was voted on that. I don’t think we’re in that realm at all. That doesn’t mean that it’s not serious if it’s true, but it’s of another league altogether.

JIM LEHRER: What perspective would you–would you urge upon everyone, Michael?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, I think one thing is we tend to sort of think of presidential scandal as something that just raged across two centuries, and the interesting thing is that it’s really been rather rare. You look at Presidents Grant and Harding. They were surrounded by corrupt people, bad scandals.

They were not particularly involved, and they were not in imminent danger of being driven from office. Andrew Johnson, as was mentioned in the earlier segment, was in danger of that, but that was because he had violated a rather minor law that restricted his ability to hire and fire. So if you’re looking at scandals that threaten a president staying in office, Richard Nixon, Watergate, certainly Ronald Reagan, Iran-Contra, could have gone in the direction that could have threatened Reagan’s ability to stay in office, so this kind of thing is really rather rare.

The other thing that is unique here is that if this does produce the kind of evidence that suggests that this is a full-fledged, serious sex scandal, that has not really happened with a sitting President, and we’re going into uncharted territory.

JIM LEHRER: Doris, your–your take on this.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think Michael is right, that history suggests that even though we’ve been witness to a series of sex scandals surrounding our presidents, very few of them have actually attacked the President during the presidency, itself, and most of the presidents have not been rocked by them. I mean, Jefferson was alleged to have had an affair during his presidency, some of the information came out, he managed to continue his presidency, and he’s rated one of the near greats. Cleveland admitted an illegitimate child before he reached the presidency; he’s considered one of the near greats.

Harding did have some trouble with a woman who he presumably was involved with in a small closet in the White House and fathered an illegitimate daughter with her, but his presidency foundered on corruption charges much more than sexual charges. It was later revealed that FDR may have had an affair with Lucy Mercer, and he’s one of the great presidents. The only difference with this sex scandal and the others is that most of them either preceded the presidency or were revealed as JFK’s or after the presidency was over.

So the complicated thing for Clinton, aside from the impeachment thing, which I think we’re way, way down the line from–this isn’t the corruption of the electoral system, as Nixon was; it’s a sex scandal, if it’s anything–is the question of the White House being used. If there’s any truth to these allegations, I think people don’t feel good about the thought that this happened in the White House, and that a man who was forewarned by Gary Hart in his own past might have done it again. But, as David said at the beginning, this is all assuming these allegations are true. But even then it’s a sex scandal, not a corruption of the electoral process scandal.

JIM LEHRER: David, picking up on a point that Elizabeth made a moment ago, the speed with which these things happen now, I mean, Watergate–Elizabeth, it took months, did it not, a long time, from the time that first story–

ELIZABETH DREW: From the break-in to the long hearings by the Irvin Committee, serious discussions in the House as to whether to proceed with impeachment; this is ultimately–the decision on impeachment is ultimately a political as well as a legal decision.


ELIZABETH DREW: And if some of these things are borne out, I think it’s not just a sex scandal. I think the more serious threat to Clinton is if he did interfere.


ELIZABETH DREW: With the rule of law. But then a decision would be made, a political decision, as to whether to go through it. And I think people forget what a big, solid, awesome in the real sense of the term, an impeachment process is.

JIM LEHRER: But back to the speed thing, David, the idea that we’ve got to have an answer to this–we’ve got to have an answer by somebody–or we can’t have our talk shows–

DAVID GERGEN: You almost–

JIM LEHRER: It’s in the air.

DAVID GERGEN: That’s right. It’s almost like somebody’s in a kayak, they’re sailing down the water, Clinton’s in great shape, he’s in beautiful water, and suddenly his kayak turns upside down. You know, in 48 hours he’s got from being on top of the world to underneath. And you feel like he’s got to either be righted very quickly, or we’re all going to–you know–we’re going to die looking for an answer. So I sense that people want–you know, I think it’s partly the media, I think it’s partly because of this long train of other stories that have preceded, and probably this is sort of like a thundercloud out of the air, that so many news organizations are also right on the verge of it; they were right on the verge of–

JIM LEHRER: Well, Newsweek, according to what they put on the Internet and all of that, they’ve been working on this story for a year, this particular story for a year.

DAVID GERGEN: Yes, yes. But, of course, I think that once you got on the Drudge Report–

JIM LEHRER: Which is–for those folks who don’t know what that is–that is something that’s on the Internet that repeats gossip.

DAVID GERGEN: That was charitable.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

ELIZABETH DREW: On the sex part of it, it has timber, shall we say, resonance, because of what is believed to have been Clinton’s behavior before he became president, and I think a lot of wondering would he be self-controlling when he became president, and now–

JIM LEHRER: And the assumption was that he would be.

ELIZABETH DREW: Well, anybody in their right mind would be–


ELIZABETH DREW: –because it’s just too dangerous. We have not just the Lewinsky story but also the Kathleen Willey, another former White House aide, under duress testified in the Paula Jones case that, yes, the President did make a sexual approach to her. And I think it’s the squalidness–if there turns out to be a pattern of squalidness, this is going to hurt Clinton a lot but it’s not necessarily an impeachable offense.

JIM LEHRER: You’re nodding, Haynes.

HAYNES JOHNSON: Yes. And I agree with Elizabeth exactly. The degree of which the squalidness exists now and the speed–again, your acceleration process–we now are conditioned almost to this daily scandal. You watched that scene today, the mad scene with the special prosecutor coming out, and he’s surrounded, almost knocked down. You see Vernon Jordan being surrounded–

JIM LEHRER: He had to have police. Did you see that?

HAYNES JOHNSON: Yes. Literally–

JIM LEHRER: He had to have a police escort to keep these wonderful people from the press from crushing him.

HAYNES JOHNSON: And this is kind of the way in which we live now, so it’s not the way it was during Watergate. It was a low, slow, deliberate process, a great detective story. You didn’t want to believe it, but this one is sordid, and we live in a sordid time.

JIM LEHRER: Michael–yes, Doris, go ahead.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: You know, what’s still hard to understand is that when Clinton decided to go forward with the Paula Jones suit, it seemed to me wrong at the time, and it seems even doubly wrong now. None of this might have come out had he not done that. And the reason for not doing it and for settling it much earlier was to save time, resources, his chance to shape the agenda. Time is his enemy now. He’s only got a couple of years left. This State of the Union message would have been his chance to shape the agenda for the future and for his legacy. And now–whatever the allegations’ truth are–he’s lost that chance right now because of all of this stuff. And had he settled this case earlier, perhaps this wouldn’t have come out. I never understood why he didn’t do that.

JIM LEHRER: Michael.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And if this gets into a big legal process and a constitutional process, if the evidence is there, this is something that the founders intended because they created the Office of the Presidency so that it wasn’t like a parliamentary system, where a legislature could vote a prime minister out of office–

JIM LEHRER: In one day.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Exactly. The idea was to make it hugely difficult to remove a president from office, and that is absolutely at war, as we’ve been saying, with our own times when we really want to come to a judgment very quickly. One thing that sticks in my mind, Richard Nixon, after he was expelled from office, or resigned, said that, you’ll never again have a situation where a president goes through impeachment and conviction because a president is so important you can’t have a president in the dark for that many months. One interesting thing to see is going to be if the presidency, the imperial presidency has diminished so much and perhaps the position of the United States in the world now that the Cold War is over that we’re actually content to see a president paralyzed for a year or two.

JIM LEHRER: Do you have a view of that, David, as to how President Clinton can function with this cloud there?

DAVID GERGEN: Well, I think Doris’s point that the President has an interest in getting this behind him quickly is absolutely right, but I think the country has an interest in getting this resolved quickly. Everything the President does now is going to be judged through the lens of this affair. For example, if he now flexes muscles against Saddam Hussein and Iraq, there’s going to be an interpretation he’s doing it to divert attention. You know, this movie that’s out there now, “Wag the Dog,” that–where presidential aides used a phony war to divert attention from–

JIM LEHRER: This is a movie movie, right?

DAVID GERGEN: It’s a movie.


DAVID GERGEN: But they had a phony war. Now, people are going to say, well, is Clinton producing something phony as in “Wag the Dog,” is it the “Wag the Dog” syndrome? And I think that’s something that hurts all of us. The Congress and the President need to get on with the agenda. It’s a serious agenda out there, both international affairs and here. There’s a long list of things that everybody needs to pay attention to in this coming year, and I think to have this hanging over him and to play through every one of these questions about how he uses power, whether he’s sacrificing America’s national interest in order to save his own personal political interest is going to be now front and center with us until this is resolved.

JIM LEHRER: What’s your view of that, Elizabeth?

ELIZABETH DREW: Well, I think that’s right, and the problem may be that Clinton survives and that’s not a problem, but the presidency is very damaged, and it’s what his presidency is doing to the office, so I think it’s very worrisome, but it’s not just the news and the intensity that have sped up. Our politics are meaner; let’s face it. It took a long time for anybody to say out loud “impeachment” in 1973-74, and it was considered a very solemn thing. Our politics are meaner on both sides, and I think the same kind of hesitancy doesn’t obtain anymore. Somebody mentioned Iran-Contra, and as you probably recall, the decision was made ahead of time, we learned, by the chairman of Mr.–Sen. Inouye and Sen. Rudman, Democrat and Republican–that they would not take this to President Reagan; they did not think the country could go through another impeachment. And they actually stopped the question before it got there. That’s very different from now.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Do you–Haynes, you were an editor at the Washington Post during the Watergate thing. I don’t want to use the Watergate analogy in terms of the end result, but a president functioning in this kind of atmosphere–what do you remember?

HAYNES JOHNSON: Very, very difficult. The good appearance–David will remember–he was inside the White House at that time–that’s when we met, as a matter of fact–and at that point the President every day goes through with his supposed routine. It’s not routine. And you are trapped every day with more disclosures and the slow, leaking process, the enveloping cloud, and that’s what I meant about Washington today and now in that sense–this sense that there’s something in the air around us that is building, and it’s very hard to function. And another thing the people begin–are more cynical today. They are going to believe David’s point about the ability of the President to govern.

JIM LEHRER: Michael.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Another thing we historians are learning is how many hours a day now Richard Nixon spent obsessed with Watergate and psychologically breaking down over the course of about a year and a half. That’s something you wouldn’t want to wish on the country.


DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: And the other thing that is hard to understand is what this must be doing to the relationship between the President and Hillary Clinton. Here’s a woman who stood by him in the past; she’s now publicly standing by him again; but it must raise in her mind all the memories of difficult times in the past and make tensions in their relationship, which is really hard for him, since she’s such a partner to him.

JIM LEHRER: You bet. You bet. Well, thank you all five very much.