January 19, 1999
Following extended excerpts of the Senate trial, Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot give some perspective on the trial and the president's State of the Union address.
JIM LEHRER: Finally, some overview perspective on today's events from Shields and Gigot, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot. Paul, do you believe Ruff changed any of the basic dynamics of this case today?
PAUL GIGOT: I think he did to some extent, Jim. I think what he did was he gave Democrats, who may be inclined to acquit the president, was something to hang their hats on. Last week with the Republican managers' case, there were some Democrats who were saying -- looking around saying, hmm, there's something here we have to be concerned about perhaps. And I think what he did was he gave them an alternative explanation or tried to lay out an alternative explanation. You know, this is the first time in a year, Jim, in a whole year that the White House has actually responded to the facts. I mean, they never did in the House, except in passing in the House impeachment hearings. So this is the first time they've done it. I think they've done it because they feel they have to but they at least did give the Democrats something to hang on.
JIM LEHRER: How do you feel, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: Jim, first of all, for three days in a row the Republicans were making their case, sometimes well, sometimes not well, but for three days they were on offense. And the Democrats were on defense and the Democrats really -- you don't score on defense. What Chuck Ruff did today for the White House was he stopped the hemorrhaging, the hemorrhaging of self-doubt, the hemorrhaging of, you know, gee, is there a case to be made, is there a case to be heard? And, I think, most importantly, the dynamic you asked about, he switched it in this sense. The quote I wrote down was: "Impeachment is not a remedy for private wrongs; it's a method of removing someone whose continued presence in office would cause grave danger to the nation." If he shifts the focus to that, then I think the political argument for the president becomes a lot stronger than the legal argument. And I think as long as it's on political grounds, Bill Clinton is in a stronger position.
|Linda Tripp leapt out.|
JIM LEHRER: Just to follow up on the discussion we just heard, and that -- because in our listening to Ruff this afternoon and in our gavel-to-gavel coverage, the name Linda Tripp leapt out and leapt out and leapt out as a kind of a threat.
MARK SHIELDS: Sure.
JIM LEHRER: And Margaret's folks felt the same way. Do you feel that as well? Was he delivering a message?
PAUL GIGOT: He sure was. It was an implicit or maybe explicit threat to the Senators. And there's a great fear on the part of all the Senators of both parties -- but particularly some of the Republicans -- that this thing not get out of control and that it not become a spectacle. And so when they think of witnesses, they would like it contained. Behind the scenes they're telling the House managers, pare down your list, we don't want everybody you've ever thought you'd want to see up here; we want a contained list directly bearing on the facts. Ruff is saying to the Republicans you want witnesses? We'll give you witnesses, we'll give you all you can handle, including some you don't necessarily want to hear. Now some Republicans may say that's a bluff because they really don't want witnesses, and it may be a bluff. But nonetheless, it hangs out there as a challenge to them.
MARK SHIELDS: I think that the move toward witnesses had occurred before Ruff spoke today. I mean, there's no question - it's like Bob Bennett of Utah and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Ted Stevens of Alaska, all of whom had been on record against witnesses switching during the Republican managers' testimony and presentation. I don't think there's any question that a majority was moving very strongly in favor of witnesses, there was nothing the Democrats could do to stop them. And I think this is a way of saying, you know, the price of poker just went up.
JIM LEHRER: Interesting that the Senate Minority Leader, Tom Daschle, said yesterday that he felt - you know, he was opposed to it -- he felt that witnesses were now inevitable. Now Senate Majority Leader Lott said today even in a little session where I was this morning, "I'm not sure that Tom is right." That's a direct quote -- that the movement may not be there after all. That was even before Ruff had spoken.
|Sealed the argument.|
MARK SHIELDS: That's right. That's right. But Ruff in his presentation - don't forget this, Jim -- confronted the facts. He all but made -- I think he sealed the argument in favor of witnesses.
JIM LEHRER: Is that right?
MARK SHIELDS: I mean, what he did - oh, yes. I think he -- by challenging the facts-
PAUL GIGOT: Yes, sure.
MARK SHIELDS: -- and the conclusions and the statements made and the interpretations made by the House managers in their case he in a strange way -
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree? The only question is who and how many? How many and who?
PAUL GIGOT: Yes. I do think that's right. If he challenges the facts, then the managers are going to come back and say, well, let us put on our case to figure out where these differences are and see who is telling the truth. I think the Daschle and Lott differences are revealing of the anxieties in both of their conferences. You know -
JIM LEHRER: Explain that.
PAUL GIGOT: Tom Daschle knows that five or ten Democrats are inclined to vote for witnesses. So he figures the Republicans will vote for them, so he's going to say it's inevitable. Trent Lott, on the other hand, is saying, you know, I know my members may say they want witnesses but they're still jittery -
JIM LEHRER: Still scared about it.
PAUL GIGOT: -- about the fact it could run out of control.
MARK SHIELDS: I'll play one up with you. You saw Trent Lott. I saw Asa Hutchinson, the congressman from Arkansas, at breakfast this morning with a bunch of other reporters. And there is -- let me tell you -- there is strong division in and among the House managers on what witnesses, if witnesses, whom to call and whom not to call.
JIM LEHRER: I didn't know that.
MARK SHIELDS: There is far from unanimity.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes. Now, as we sit here, we've had all of this and then what's going to happen in about a little less - we're talking -- it's quarter to 7 Eastern time. At 9:00 Eastern time the defendant is going to go right down there to this same place where we've just been watching, in a different room in the same thing and give the State of the Union address. Overlay that remarkable event on this other remarkable event, Paul.
PAUL GIGOT: Well, it's almost as if there is an alternative universe, an alternative presidency being offered by President Clinton. He's going to go up there and if the White House is to be believed, he's not going to mention this process that is preoccupying the senate and frankly the government - the entire government these days. Instead he's going to talk almost -- it's almost as if somebody else is being impeached or is on trial -- maybe Bob Dole or somebody else. Instead he's going to lay out an argument for the presidency that he would like it to be if none of this other stuff was happening and simply ignore it. It's an extraordinary kind of unreality.
|Dominating the political debate.|
JIM LEHRER: Unreality?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I made a strong and compelling case at this very spot on Friday that he should not make the State of the Union address, which obviously went unheeded.
PAUL GIGOT: That's the first time.
MARK SHIELDS: I'd say, this Jim. Bill Clinton tonight is the -- is setting the political agenda. He's dominating the political debate. There is nobody on the other side who's remotely in his class right now as far as a national figure. I mean, no disrespect to Speaker Hastert or to Senate Majority Leader Lott. But, I mean, there's no Bob Dole; there's no Newt Gingrich. There's not anybody offering a competing agenda. So what he's going to do tonight is say this is the country's business, this is what we're about.
JIM LEHRER: Social Security.
MARK SHIELDS: Social Security and education -
JIM LEHRER: -- tax -- readiness --health care.
MARK SHIELDS: And that really gives him two bites at the apple.
PAUL GIGOT: I see it a little differently. He's going to do some of that but what he's also going to do is he's going to say, look America, we've got a good thing going here. The economy is great. He's going to associate himself -
JIM LEHRER: The market was up today as a - go ahead.
PAUL GIGOT: He's going to associate himself with every bit of good news that we've had or are having. And he's going to say if I'm not the cause, I'm the icon of it; I'm the good luck charm and don't break up this good thing. And if I'm ousted, maybe it will break it up. It's subtle implication of what he's going to be saying tonight. And that's part of his political defense.
MARK SHIELDS: Well, it's more than associating himself. I mean, when the man took office, irrespective of how you feel about his behavior, the nation had its highest and steepest deficit in history. Now we have the highest surplus in history.
JIM LEHRER: In six years.
MARK SHIELDS: In six years. Now, I mean, he's been there. And he's been challenged by the opposition, his policies have been under attack and under siege by some of the great editorial pages of the country. And he's -
PAUL GIGOT: He's adopted those same policies and you've resisted them.
MARK SHIELDS: The reality is it's Bill Clinton's deficit reduction plan, I mean, and it's Bill Clinton's economy. And you can be damned sure that if unemployment instead of 4.3 were 10.3 today, it would be Bill Clinton's fault ; it certainly wouldn't be the fault of anything else.
JIM LEHRER: You don't dispute that, do you?
PAUL GIGOT: Any president always gets credit for the economy good or bad - the blame - there's no question about him -- Bill Clinton's been skillful in taking that credit. The idea that everything flowed from that one, single act in 1993, all prosperity bloomed, I would take issue with. There was an intervening event or two, the reappointment of Alan Greenspan, the election of a Republican Congress, but there's no question that Bill Clinton as a political matter wants to take credit for those things, and the country is inclined to give it to him.
|How to behave.|
JIM LEHRER: Senator Lott was asked how he was going to conduct himself tonight, because that was - you know - a little skittish there. What do you do? Do you stand up and applaud for a guy you're trying for alleged high crimes and misdemeanors? And Senator Lott said, look, I'm prepared to stand up and applaud everything that he says that I agree with. And so somebody said, like what? And he said, well like Social Security reform. He said, we're not far apart on that. He went through a long list of things. And that is really going to be fascinating to watch how everybody handles themselves, both Democrats and Republicans.
MARK SHIELDS: Absolutely. The Democrats don't become too noisy and sort of taunting or whatever else at the Republicans who are a little uncomfortable, many of whom there are under duress and quite reluctantly. Don't forget -
JIM LEHRER: Some of them didn't want to come, right?
MARK SHIELDS: Some of them didn't want to come and I think but the ones who do come will be polite. They know that. I mean, the Republicans were hurt in 1995 when they did their kind of needling of Bill Clinton and it hurt the Republicans at that time. And I would say this. One thing missing tonight and don't forget this, the Democrats' favorite target -- Newt Gingrich -- won't be sitting behind him. I mean, it's going to be Speaker Dennis Hastert and the Democrats miss him.
JIM LEHRER: Do you expect anything major like that to happen, it's all going to be peaches and cream and polite?
PAUL GIGOT: I think it will be restrained, to say the least, on the Republican side. I think they'll politely applaud the presidency, but some of them I've been talking to, and they want to act like the Supreme Court does when the president comes in, which is stand up and when he leaves and enters but not overdo it on the applause.
JIM LEHRER: Again, as they say in journalism, we'll see what happens. Thank you both.