May 1, 1998
The growing divide between Republicans and Democrats on the Starr investigation escalated into a war of words between House Speaker Gingrich and President Clinton. Following a background report, Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot and syndicated columnist Mark Shields review the week in politics.
JIM LEHRER: For more on the president and related matters Shields & Gigot, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot. War of words, what is your battle assessment at the end of the week, Mark, advantage President Clinton, advantage Speaker Gingrich?
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May 1, 1998
A war of words between Speaker Gingrich and President Clinton.
April 23, 1998
Sen. Daschle presents the Democrats' view of issues facing Congress.
April 22, 1998
Sen. Lott provides the Republicans' view of issues facing Congress.
April 22, 1998
An update on campaign finance reform.
April 21, 1998
Sen. McCain discusses the tobacco bill.
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MARK SHIELDS: Well, Jim, what should have been the really bad week for the White House, the immunity story on Monica Lewinsky, she--there is no immunity granted by the independent counsel. She's going to have to testify--will testify before the grand jury. The indictment of Webster Hubbell--I mean, the White House very much on the defensive, bad news for him, and Newt Gingrich steps in, and saves them. He steps on a good news week for the anti-Clinton folks. What he does is he takes a story that if you're a Republican, you want the story to go forward, you don't want any partisan context, you want the story to carry itself, you want the press to write about it, you want the independent counsel to act. What Newt Gingrich did was he enabled Tom Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader, Dick Gephardt, the House Democratic leader, stand up and say this is unfair; it's partisan; it's--and put it right in a partisan context. And I'll tell you--I mean, I think it's exactly the background music, the wallpaper that the White House most wants for this--people in the country to say, well, the criticism must be political.
JIM LEHRER: Paul.
PAUL GIGOT: I don't share Mark's view of that. This was already partisan and political, and I think that's the conclusion that Newt Gingrich reached. There was no way this was not--that anything that Ken Starr did--anything that--any legal story was not going to be spun or interpreted by the White House as political, as partisan. So--and as a result, the White House has been dominating the perception, the public perception, with the bully pulpit of what this story is and what they've been saying is it's a partisan vendetta by an out of control prosecutor about a 21 year old intern, about sex. It's about private things. We should forget about it. Gingrich is trying to elevate it and say, look, this is about more than that, put it in a broader context, in part to educate the country about whether or not--in case this goes to the Judiciary Committee--but also just to educate people about the stakes. It's about the rule of law. There are serious accusations here. I think there have been a lot of Republicans for a long time who wanted Newt Gingrich or somebody prominent to speak up, and I think that they're happy he has.
JIM LEHRER: What about the political risks, has he taken any?
PAUL GIGOT: Yes. There's no question that the Democrats jumped on it and said it's going to be partisan. And for a lot of Democrats, in particular, they will perceive it that way. But the benefit on the other side, I think, is also something that you can begin to educate people and to tell your supporters, Republicans and independents out there, wait a minute, this is not a simple story about sex, so there is some risk, but there's also a benefit.
JIM LEHRER: A benefit.
Mr. Shields: "He's (Speaker Gingrich) down in favorability somewhere around the Menendez Brothers. "
MARK SHIELDS: Big risk. Eighteen months the speaker spent rehabilitating himself. He's down in favorability somewhere around the Menendez Brothers. He's come back. He's in good shape. The Congress is in good shape. I mean, he's in an improved condition, and he was the lean but not mean Newt, going on the Tonight Show, patting a koala bear, feeding an ardvark, and just sort of this avuncular Newt, and all of a sudden he's back into the same old Newt. I mean, 18 months has gone by the boards, Jim, but there's a big risk.
JIM LEHRER: But about Paul's point, though, that there is also the potential that he could turn it around in terms of the educating the American people about what the serious matters here are beyond sex, et cetera.
MARK SHIELDS: Well, the Speaker is not the person to do that. And if you want to do Henry Hyde, you want to do Howard Baker, you want to do Gerry Ford, you want to do all kinds of people, the Speaker is just--the Democrats were licking their chops after he came out, and--
JIM LEHRER: How about that, Paul? This is the wrong messenger--the message may have some merit, but it's the wrong messenger?
PAUL GIGOT: No other Republican commands the cameras, commands press attention like Newt Gingrich has. I mean, Steve Forbes says it, or John Ashcroft says it, or somebody else says it--it's a one-off quote. Newt Gingrich says it everybody pays attention. So we've got at least an engagement over ideas here.
JIM LEHRER: We're talking about it.
PAUL GIGOT: We're talking about it. That's right.
JIM LEHRER: And everybody else is because Newt Gingrich did it.
MARK SHIELDS: It's--Jim, there's exposure and there's indecent exposure. And I'll tell you, if I were a Republican partisan, if I were a Republican partisan, I would be hurting right now because this thing is not in the context where I want it debated as a Republican partisan. Let me just point out, the base of the Republican Party--that is the family values--religious values people in the Republican Party who comprise a little--two out of five Republican voters have been very disappointed in the party of leadership.
JIM LEHRER: For not doing this?
MARK SHIELDS: For not doing it. For not taking on Bill Clinton. For not standing up. For not speaking out, and so lately what have we seen? We've seen Tom Delay, the House Majority Whip, and Dick Armey, the House Majority Leader, and now the Speaker--they're scared stiff, Jim. I mean, Rev. Jim Dobson comes out of the focus on the family group in Colorado, very powerful voice in the religious right, he is basically saying, there's not a dime's worth of difference between the two parties.
JIM LEHRER: Unless you speak out, unless you do it.
MARK SHIELDS: Okay. Yes.
Mr. Gigot: "there are larger issues here, 92 witnesses who had either fled the country or taken the Fifth Amendment."
PAUL GIGOT: Yes, but this isn't simply about base politics. There's some of that going on. This is about more than that. This is also about telling those other Republicans who may have tuned this out and the other mass of people who may have said, well, this is all about that tabloid stuff, wait a minute, there is, there are larger issues here about cooperation with Congress, about 92 witnesses who had either fled the country or taken the Fifth Amendment. That's extraordinary. And the country doesn't know that, and if Republicans aren't helping to tell them that, they're not going to know it.
JIM LEHRER: We had the regional commentators on last night talking about this very thing, and Mike Barnicle of the Boston Globe said they've tuned out both Clinton and Gingrich on this. But you think it's possible to bring the public back into this?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, I think that as the legal case moves along and you have indictments and you have reports and that sort of thing, the public will tune in at different windows, and Gingrich's speaking up I think is probably one of those windows. I mean, the public does tune out a lot of what goes on here, but ultimately I think they're going to want to know was this of some substance or meaning.
JIM LEHRER: Now, speaking of substance and meaning, the two things that Dan Balz talked to Elizabeth about--two of the things--one is the Lewinsky immunity issue, and the other is the indictment of Webster Hubbell--how important are they?
Mr. Shields: "...I don't think that anybody thinks Monica Lewinsky is going to show up in an orange jumpsuit like Susan McDougal...."
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think the Lewinsky immunity decision is an important one. It means that Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp are finally going to testify under oath before a grand jury. And it's got to be bad news for the White House, there's no question about it. I mean, she'll go in, refuse in all likelihood to take questions, and they'll offer immunity, and I don't think that anybody thinks Monica Lewinsky is going to show up in an orange jumpsuit like Susan McDougal has for the last year and a half.
PAUL GIGOT: I--(laughing)--
JIM LEHRER: Yes, Paul? That's an allusion to the fact of being in prison, she wears a prison uniform and shackles--
MARK SHIELDS: And she will testify--
JIM LEHRER: Right.
PAUL GIGOT: Nobody knows what she's going to say, I agree with Mark, it's a threat to the White House. I think the Hubbell indictment paradox, I think, has brought some relief to the White House because what it meant was he's not cooperating with Starr, and that's their great fear, is that somebody like a Susan McDougal or Hubbell might cooperate in a way that tells things that they haven't provided so far.
JIM LEHRER: Dan also said that one of the significant things was what the indictment did not include, which was an allegation that this was hush money, this money that Hubbell was paid after he left the administration.
MARK SHIELDS: To me, I think that's significant. I mean, I really thought this showed Ken Starr, the independent counsel, with another tin ear. He goes after Web Hubbell, and brings a charge against him on not paying taxes, failure to pay taxes. A career attorney at the Justice Department today, 21 years in the tax division, prosecuting this case has seen one other case for failure to pay taxes. This isn't evasion. This isn't avoidance. This isn't failure to file. This is somebody who's paying off other bills before he paid off IRS. But I think the mistake they made was indicting Susie Hubbell, Web Hubbell's wife, at the same time. They don't do that to mafia dons when they're going after them. And I really think that--
JIM LEHRER: And his lawyer and his accountant.
MARK SHIELDS: And his lawyer and his accountant.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think about that?
Mr. Gigot: "...there was tantalizing evidence in the indictment of the hush money point...."
PAUL GIGOT: They do go after--they do do that when they suspect that there is a conspiracy not to tell the truth, and there was tantalizing evidence in the indictment of the hush money point, which is that, I think he said that--the indictment said that there was something like $700,000 paid around--shortly after Web Hubbell had resigned from the Justice Department, that he performed little or no work for an awful lot of those jobs and that cash. It is significant, however, that he didn't have enough to make the obstruction indictment, if that's what he--I think that's Starr's theory of the case, that there has been a systematic effort here. He is pressuring Hubbell, and he's leaning hard, there's no question about that.
JIM LEHRER: It may not be over. It may not be over, is what you're saying.
PAUL GIGOT: And you go with what you got.
JIM LEHRER: Go ahead.
MARK SHIELDS: The speaker concluded in a statement earlier this week that it was hush money; that's what it was. I mean, he's on record that way. This is where I think the hyperbole again doesn't help.
JIM LEHRER: Well, I want to come back to that. The president's news conference--we've had these statements by Gingrich as well this week. How do you rate them just in terms of--at the rhetoric level, how the president handled himself at the news conference, how Gingrich is handling his story?
Mr. Shields: "...ask about what time it is--he's going to tell you the history of Switzerland and watchmaking...."
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think the president, the news conference, the press conferences have historically been a great forum, a very effective forum for Bill Clinton as president to make his case. He shows a mastery of information. He's quite personable. He's totally articulate. He's easy and relaxed in that setting. He's as good, you know, handling it as anybody. I think what we've seen now, as a consequence of this story, especially the Monica Lewinsky part of it, is that the press conference has become a mine field to be tiptoed around. The answers yesterday fell into two categories: Anything about the investigation--click--little bob, weave--and you ask about anything--ask about what time it is--he's going to tell you the history of Switzerland and watchmaking and they showed that mastery of information on the Middle East--
PAUL GIGOT: Gripping stuff.
MARK SHIELDS: No, but that was the old Clinton.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. The old Clinton?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, I thought that it showed--in his attempt to show how little he thought about this--it showed how much he's thinking about it. He said, I'm above it all, I'm doing the people's business, and yet, he showed in an answer to one question that he was familiar with a New Yorker article about the religious convictions of one of Ken Starr's deputies, Hick Hewing. I mean, can you imagine Ronald Reagan having any familiarity with anything like that during Iran Contra? No.
MARK SHIELDS: What do you mean?
PAUL GIGOT: He is focused on this. It's taking up enormous amounts of his time, and it's preoccupying him, and one other thing that I thought was interesting about his press conference is it revealed sort of a self image of all of this, which is I think sort of like Jean Vel Jean in Les Miserables. He's--he's the righteous man. He's the besieged individual, the virtuous soul who all around him is beset by evil enemies who really want to take him down. That's the only thing--their only goal. And it's a failure on his part to take any kind of responsibility--much as Mark said a year ago about Newt Gingrich--when he was fighting his ethics charges. Right now you have the president failing to admit that there's any responsibility he should take.
JIM LEHRER: Did you find it interesting, Mark and Paul, that in the middle of all this yesterday the Senate not far away--the Senate of the United States by an overwhelming margin was passing NATO expansion, which was supposed to be in trouble at one time or other and the president well--Trent Lott said on this show last week it was close, the president had worked very hard to get it done, and yet it happened.
MARK SHIELDS: Eighty to nineteen. I mean, total bipartisan at a time when the other initiatives of the administration--UN funding and IMF funding--are in trouble. I think careful intense lobbying--I think a lot of credit has to go to Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen, who has been a NATO guy since the day he came into the Senate in '78, but don't forget the political domestic aspect of it--states--key states--
JIM LEHRER: All right.
MARK SHIELDS: --Czech, Hungarian, and especially large Polish populations.
JIM LEHRER: How do you read it?
PAUL GIGOT: This shows that the differences within the parties on foreign affairs are much bigger right now than the differences between the parties. This was not--this was pushing a rock down hill politically. I mean, Bob Dole was for this in 1996, when you--when you have a coalition that ranges from Joe Biden on the left to Jesse Helms on the right, he'd better be able to pass it.
JIM LEHRER: All right. So don't read too much into this is what you're saying?
PAUL GIGOT: It's significant; it's a significant American commitment, but I'm not saying that this was the hardest political sell in the world.
JIM LEHRER: I hear you. Thank you both very much.