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Jul 22, 2004 7:47 am

Clinton's Impeachment ... And Its Consequences

Stanley Kutler writes in his otherwise perspicacious and wise review of the Clinton memoir:

Impeachment is Clinton's Scarlet Word. He likely will be best remembered as the first elected President to be impeached. He is deservedly bitter, but his bravado--that it is a "badge of honor"--fails to consider his best defense. Only a forceful recognition that the impeachment was a farce from the outset might protect his reputation. The tack taken by Senator Ted Stevens, that most loyal of Republicans, might offer Clinton a beginning. Stevens cast one of those curious, bifurcated votes, clearly to appease the more fanatical partisans, as he voted to convict the President on one charge and acquit him on the other. But Stevens had no illusions. For him the world was still a dangerous place, and he said he would not support removal if he thought his vote would be decisive. With striking candor, Stevens said that Clinton had "not brought that level of danger to the nation necessary to justify such an action." Stevens correctly gauged the national mood; the trial simply was not serious.

What Kutler overlooks is that this "farce" had serious consequences. For a year Bill Clinton was hampered in the execution of his most important responsibility: safeguarding national security. One of the themes of the emerging literature of 9-11 is that the Clinton administration repeatedly missed opportunities to deal a death blow to al Qaeda. The Republicans just this week claimed that the 9-11 commission report is really an indictment of Clinton not Bush. After all, as Hastert and Delay observed, the report concerns 8 years of Clinton mistakes and only 8 months of Bush's.

Democrats may cringe at the thought that Bill Clinton abdicated his responsibility to protect the U.S. from terrorist attacks, but the record indicates that he didn't always do what was necessary to fend them off. He rarely met with his FBI director. He did not insist that the FBI hunt down terrorist cells in America. He did not back up his CIA director's claim that we were at war with al Qaeda with action.

It is overly harsh to blame Clinton for failing to do before 9-11 what we obviously needed to do after 9-11. Holding Clinton to a standard set after 9-11, an event that took place after his presidency, is an example of the worst form of present-mindedness, a historian's no-no.

Richard Clarke insists that Clinton did much to trounce the terrorists. He approved every request to snatch terrorists. He approved plans to kill bin Laden. And he told officials after the East African bombings in 1998 to prepare to act even though critics would argue that he was using the bombings as an excuse to divert public attention from the Lewinsky scandal. (The bombings took place one week before he was scheduled to be deposed by Kenneth Starr at the White House.)

But Clarke also notes that Clinton lacked the clout to remake the FBI and focus the agency on terrorism because of his preoccupation with the Lewinsky scandal. That includes the year he spent fighting off his impeachment and trial.

No one will ever be able to say how he may have reacted if he was not distracted by the Lewinsky affair. (Some graduate school students presumably are already beginning dissertations to piece together the twin strands of the story of the scandal and terrorism threats--at least I hope so.) But to dismiss the impeachment and trial of Clinton as farce is to ignore the consequences of the imbroglio.

Contrary to what Kutler says, Clinton's most effective argument would be to point out the devastating consequences this supposed"opera bouffe" had on his presidency and the country. It would be too easy to conclude that 3,000 people died on 9-11 because the Republicans stage-managed the impeachment of a president a couple of years earlier. But neither is it out of bounds to wonder if their all-out war on Bill Clinton didn't contribute to our losing the battle on 9-11.


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