November 27, 1998
columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot
discuss the 81 questions sent to President Clinton about the Lewinsky
JIM LEHRER: Mark, how important are these answers today?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, they're important, Jim, probably more important legally than they are politically, because the President had to answer both - on both grounds. He had to be careful of his legal exposure to face eventually, if not immediately, a charge of perjury and politically the minefield to kind of tip his hand in a way that would open up - give his foes - his political foes or the advocates of impeachment more material. As of now, it doesn't look like that happened.
JIM LEHRER: Nothing new in there? Did you see anything new in there, Paul?
PAUL GIGOT: No, Jim, I didn't. I think the - the most interesting thing in there was the fact that there was nothing new and the fact that, remember, when Joe Lieberman, Senator Lieberman had - around the time was criticizing the President, and it looked like he was in more political trouble from this. There's a lot of talk that if the President would only stipulate to perhaps having lied under oath, that would be the basis of a plea bargain or a censure agreement. And it looks like after the election, there's going to be no such stipulations at all. If there's anything that is going to be found by the committee as the grounds for articles of impeachment, they're going to have declare it, themselves. They're not going to be able to get the President to go along with them.
JIM LEHRER: Paul, what did you make of the exchange we just heard between the two Congressman, Congressman Nadler, the Democrat, saying, well, you have to have some witnesses here, Congressman Hutchinson said, well, maybe we don't need witnesses, all we need to do is to get the thing into the Senate, where they will call the witnesses. How do you read that?
PAUL GIGOT: A very interesting reversal, Jim. I mean, for months the Democrats were saying, Republicans are taking too long, let's get it over with, and now, at least as I was listening to Congressman Nadler, he's saying, we need to have more witnesses; we have to have Monica Lewinsky up here and Betty Currie up here, and we need to give David Kendall the chance to cross-examine. And you have the Republicans saying, please, let's get this over with before the end of the year. Monica and the rest have already testified under oath; we need to make our judgments about credibility, and then vote and get it on. So, you know, I mean, the Republicans want this to go away by the end of the year, it looks like some of the Democrats wouldn't mind if it went on for several more months, or at least for several more weeks.
JIM LEHRER: What's going on, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: I think the Democrats are pressing the advantage they have politically, which is that people want it over, Republicans want it over. I think the irony, Jim -
JIM LEHRER: They're pushing for more witnesses.
MARK SHIELDS: But, no -
JIM LEHRER: They're really not?
MARK SHIELDS: They're really not. They're really pressing the advantage they have over the Republicans. The irony is that, Jim, nine out of ten Americans right now believe that Bill Clinton either definitely or probably lied under oath. That's pretty serious stuff. And yet, those same folks, up to 70 percent, want the thing over with. So that's the dilemma that the Republicans or anybody else on the Hill is dealing with, that people say, yes, it's a pretty good bet this guy lied under oath, and at the same time, I don't want impeachment. And that's what Republicans are confronted with and it's a terrible, terrible choice for them.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Let's talk about this. In the last week or so, Paul, there's been this new talk about censure, something short of impeachment, even before it goes to the floor of the House. Congressman Delahunt, Democrat from Massachusetts has got a censure motion, Congressman McHale from Pennsylvania, another Democrat, has a similar one. What's that all about?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, I think this is something that the Democrats want more than the Republicans want. For all of Mark's talk about the Republican dilemma, the Democrats have one too, and that dilemma is that while they do not want to vote to impeachment the President and certainly the public said they don't want to remove him - I think that the elections were clear about that. They want him to serve out his term. Nonetheless, the Democrats don't want to associate themselves with Bill Clinton's behavior. They don't want - they want to have something to say that what he did was wrong, and some kind of sanction or be able to say they did. But there's no censure in the Constitution. The Constitution says the Congress doesn't give Congress the right to censure the President at every opportunity. It says that its check on the executive or one of those checks is impeachment. And that's what Henry Hyde is moving the machinery forward with. So - and he said - flatly - he is not going to be the sponsor of a censure resolution. There's a debate within the Republican Conference over whether or not that's a useful episode, but I don't think any Republican right now wants to have a censure compromise, if you will, come out before there's an impeachment vote. They want the members to vote on impeachment before any deal comes -
JIM LEHRER: You mean, in the committee or on the floor?
PAUL GIGOT: In the committee and then most Republicans would also - not all but most Republicans would like there to be a vote on impeachment - one, two or three articles, however many come out on the floor. The Democrats would like to solve it before it gets to that point.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think is going to happen then, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think Speaker Livingston, Speaker-Designate Livingston gave sort of a - not a green light - a flashing yellow light this week when he said that there would be an alternative measure - would be entertained. I don't think there's any question, Jim. There's a lot of things that aren't in the Constitution. National Doughnut Week is in the Constitution. I mean, we managed to - that's capital punishment - impeachment - removal from office, and Paul's right. Democrats want to - most Democrats want to go on record as formally announcing that the President's behavior was totally reprehensible and unacceptable to them. But it's more than just the punishment. I think that it will be required, and I think it's got to be more than a censure. I think it'll have to be a condemnation. I think the President will have to be involved himself. It may even approach something like when Barry Goldwater and Hugh Scott and John Rhodes went down to the White House to tell Richard Nixon his time was up, that the leaders of the Congress would have to go down to the White House, the President - in almost a formal ceremony - would have to accept that reprimand and that censure and that condemnation. So I think it's pretty serious, and I think that it is - it is an alternative. But Paul's right. The natural rhythm is they want to push impeachment first.
JIM LEHRER: And yet, Paul, the reports that I've read this week show that they - maybe you have a different reading of them, that there are 20 to 50 Republicans, House Republicans, who will not vote for impeachment, that even if it comes out on the floor, it will not go to the Senate?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, I think that very much depends on how the articles are constructed, Jim. If my reading of it is that an article of impeachment based on perjury - has a very good chance of passing - it would be quite close. I think the obstruction count and the abuse of power count - there are - it's much more difficult. But I think perjury - we've got a lot of lawyers in the Congress and a lot of them are going to have a very high time, particularly Republicans, not voting for it. That's why some of them want this censure alternative. It's less about Bill Clinton than it is about their own political protection. So that's why - I think you have to watch very carefully in the next two weeks. How are the articles of impeachment constructed by Henry Hyde -- because a lot of members on both sides don't want a strict perjury count - a perjury article - they want it all lumped in, because then it's more easy for them to vote no. If it's just perjury, where the evidence, I think, is the strongest, it's going to be very hard for some of them to vote no.
JIM LEHRER: Let's change the subject here, and that was Attorney General Reno's decision, Mark, to not recommend that an - or not as for an independent counsel to investigate Vice President Gore's activities during the 1996 campaign. What do you make of that?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, first of all, Attorney General Reno has appointed at last count I think five independent counsels on cabinet officers, so she certainly has crossed that threshold. But somehow there's a blind spot - and I do not think she should have in the case of Al Gore, the Vice President.
JIM LEHRER: We ought to say - explain what it was.
MARK SHIELDS: Okay. The question of phone calls. The phone calls he made he knew were going for money, soft money or hard money, soft money being the unlimited six-figure contributions from wealthy individuals, labor unions, corporations, that cannot be used directly in a campaign, or whether he was making the calls for hard money and whether he, in fact, had been candid in his answers about that.
JIM LEHRER: To FBI agents.
MARK SHIELDS: To FBI agents.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
MARK SHIELDS: Whether he knew that he was making actually hard money calls. And - to me - this is a back-door approach - to get an independent counsel. The attorney general should have - I think she failed - I think her judgment has been flawed - she should have appointed an independent counsel in the 1996 campaign. The use of soft money was - in my judgment - beyond anything anticipated or expected or encouraged by the law, condoned by the law. And she didn't do that. But I think it probably gave Al Gore an enormous advantage heading into 2000. If he had had an independent counsel appointed, it would have taken a lot of steam out of his candidacy.
JIM LEHRER: Even if it was for some phone calls, it would have been there.
MARK SHIELDS: That's right. And it would have tied him closely to the Clinton problems and at the same time would have encouraged some challengers maybe who are thinking about the race to make the race.
JIM LEHRER: Now, Paul, Attorney General Reno has two other decisions to make in the next two weeks about an independent counsel on related matters. One has to do with President Clinton. Another has to do with Harold Ickes, former aide to the President, also involving campaign fund-raising. What does all this add up to, to you?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, it - I mean, at every opportunity in this particular issue - the campaign finance issue - the attorney general has always said she's never seen the need for it. So I think the surprise would be if she does name one in this, frankly. I mean, it's one thing to name one in the case of say a Henry Cisneros, a cabinet officer who can resign, but it's a lot more politically difficult to do it if you name a special counsel against the man that most of the people in your party think is going to be the nominee, or is the favorite for the nominee in 2000. I think she's taken the measure of the Republicans in the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House and she's saying, you know, I don't really need to name a special counsel; there's going to be no great political price to pay for it; and there will be some stomping of feet; there will be some shouting; but in the end, whatever I do is going to stand, and I think - I'd be frankly very surprised if she names one in either of those other two cases.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with Mark that this was a terrific thing for Al Gore's year 2000 campaign, no matter what?
PAUL GIGOT: The history of independent counsels is no one knows what comes out. It's a great thing for Gore, and there's no question about it. He's breathing a sigh of relief, and there are a lot of Republicans who are going to be angry about that, but unless they decide to use their own powers, the Senate powers of oversight, the attorney general is going to be able to do this and get away without anything.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Paul, Mark, thank you both very much.