How to punish Clinton - let's count the ways

As, increasingly, the president or, at least, those who represent him, push for a punishment of President Clinton that would be less than impeachment, the censure of Joe McCarthy comes to mind.

I covered the last public outing of the infamous Wisconsin senator. It was several months after he had been censured by his Senate colleagues for his unprincipled conduct in blackening the reputation of so many people with his accusations. McCarthy was being honored by a few of his friends at a big restaurant in Skokie, Ill. He was seated at the table just behind me.

This gloomy gathering of Joe's dispirited faithful was a historic moment. McCarthy, himself, sat throughout the meal with slumped shoulders. When he got up to talk, there was no sign at all of the confident, blustering senator who not too long before had been frightening so many Americans. He didn't speak much above a whisper.

What we were witnessing that night was the visible end of Joe McCarthy's career - and of McCarthyism. After he was censured, his Senate colleagues ignored him, wouldn't even speak to him in the halls of Congress. The public snubbed him, too. He was an outcast.

Without this acclaim, McCarthy faded fast. He began to drink heavily. It was clear that censure had been a severe punishment for Joe McCarthy.

With that vivid memory of McCarthy's political demise, I find it difficult to understand the president's apparent belief that he could quickly dispose of his scandal-related problems by receiving condemnatory punishment from Congress.

Certainly, Mr. Clinton is no McCarthy - and their misconduct is worlds apart. Further, McCarthy was a senator and, as such, it was easy for his colleagues to exile him. And the president, among his friends at the White House, would not feel this sting of rebuke as he went about his daily business.

But I'm not so sure that if Clinton had to go into the well of one of the houses of Congress and accept a sternly worded condemnation - as Gerald Ford has suggested - that his long-held high standing in the polls would not finally fall off.

Exit polls in the November election have showed voters giving a 61 percent "unfavorable" opinion rating for "Bill Clinton as a person" even as they gave him a 54 percent approval rating for overall performance. I think that the censuring of the president could be the "last straw" for people who have found it increasingly difficult to approve of a man as their chief executive who fell short of a moral standard they expected him to uphold.

Will there be an impeachment vote, or will there be some kind of compromise? The incoming Speaker, Robert L. Livingston, has not ruled out a censure vote. But he indicates he favors an impeachment vote by the House - if the Judiciary Committee votes for this course of action - and adds that "the plea bargain in my mind seems to be more appropriately a question for the Senate rather than the House."

Of the possibility of the vote landing in the Senate, Mr. Livingston could well have added: "If it gets that far." Right now it seems questionable whether the Republicans would be able, in the full House, to vote impeachment.

At a recent Monitor breakfast Rep. Chris Shays told us that he was among about 20 GOP congressmen who now were inclined to vote "no," because they hadn't yet become convinced that Clinton's erring ways amounted to an impeachable offense.

Later, Mr. Shays and others in that group of legislators were probably listening hard to Kenneth Starr's testimony to see if he could convince them they should abandon their position. My guess is that Mr. Starr didn't change any of their minds.

He simply didn't move the impeachment case very far forward - although I thought he did a masterful job of defending himself against his attackers.

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