For Bill, Monica, and us, it's once more into the breach

The Breach: Inside the impeachment and trial of William Jefferson Clinton. By Peter Baker Scribner 464 pp., $27.50

If you can stand it, think back to the bizarre impeachment of President Clinton. Remember the onslaught of information? It was a virtual Niagara Falls, as Congress dumped the entire Starr report on the Internet and later released a four-hour video of the president's grand jury testimony. Over the course of this historic drama, key House leaders resigned, the president ordered bombing raids, and journalists - struggling to digest all of this - had a hard time seeing the forest for the trees.

Remember, also, the feeling that, despite the information overdose, you knew there was plenty that wasn't being said? The White House was deep in defensive mode, shuttered and locked down. The president was kept from the media. The public line was that he - and everyone except a handful on the scandal swat team - was busy about the nation's business, unaffected by the political earthquake shaking the executive mansion.

Washington Post reporter Peter Baker skillfully reconciles the information glut with the information dearth in his thoroughly researched and balanced book, "The Breach: Inside the Impeachment and Trial of William Jefferson Clinton." Moving in chronological order, he covers the sweep of events, starting with the dismal August day of the president's half-hearted, televised confession to the nation and ending with his Senate acquittal Feb. 12, 1999.

But here's a telling detail: On the very day of her husband's acquittal, Hillary Clinton held a secret meeting about whether she should embark on a political career of her own. It's inside information like this - gathered from Baker's reporting at the time, from public documents, but also from nearly 350 subsequent interviews and access to private diaries and e-mails - that makes "The Breach" a fascinating account of the greatest political power-play since Watergate.

Many of the behind-the-scenes machinations were hinted at by the media at the time, but Baker goes deeper and digs up new findings. Among them:

Clinton's support from his party was much shallower than the media - and to some extent, even the president - realized. At one point, Democratic House leaders counted 100 of the 206 Democrats as possible votes for impeachment. A White House tally of Senate Democrats showed at least a dozen on the verge of abandoning the president. Harold Ickes, a former deputy chief of staff to Clinton, tried to round up party leaders to urge the president to resign.

Just before impeachment went to the House floor for a vote, House Speaker-elect Bob Livingston (R) decided to call it off. Having been forced to confess his own marital infidelity to his colleagues, he felt impeachment had spun out of control. But an aide convinced him to reconsider, and the vote went on - though Livingston himself resigned from Congress. House minority leader Dick Gephardt (D) maneuvered to "win by losing" - that is, constantly setting up the GOP in strictly partisan votes.

At the White House, the president's aides were in turmoil, and Clinton himself often called friends late into the night to share his troubles and rail against special prosecutor Kenneth Starr. "Just because I come to work every day and keep my head up, doesn't mean this isn't tearing me apart," he told Rep. Peter King (R). "I have to act that way because I am the president." One act he couldn't carry out was to admit his affair with Monica Lewinsky to his wife. For that, he dispatched his lawyer, David Kendall.

On occasion, Baker falls into the tedium trap, and his stoop to quoting the frequent and jarring profanity of Washington's power brokers is a disturbing device. But perhaps the bigger challenge for him is whether this will be considered an inside-the-Beltway book or one for the general public.

Certainly, it's written in a lively way, and doesn't presume a lot of inside knowledge. He also knows the importance of humor. But unlike Watergate, which Americans followed with fascination all the way to its bitter end, the public turned off early to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. As Baker points out in his epilogue, "The country didn't want this impeachment" to quote Newt Gingrich. That makes it an open question as to whether anyone other than journalists, historians, and political scientists will really want to revisit this episode, despite its compelling presentation.

Francine Kiefer is a Monitor correspondent in Washington, D.C.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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