Sorting out scandal's winners and losers

Nearly everyone has been marred, but some, such as first lady andDemocrats, have reaped some benefits.

The Year of Bill and Monica appears to be really and truly almost over.

This week's final arguments in the Senate impeachment trial will soon be followed by a vote on whether to oust President Clinton from office. The only question there is how far short the House prosecutors will fall from the two-thirds majority needed for removal.

Now the final stock-taking begins, as political observers tally up just what this ordeal has meant for the country and for the individuals involved.

Writ large, the scandal of the president and the intern - in which Mr. Clinton now stands accused of perjury and obstruction of justice - has left in its wake a trail of losers. Anyone who has touched this mess has been burned, pundits say.

For Clinton the person, the Lewinsky affair has made him a permanent punch line for late-night talkmeisters. For Clinton the president, the past year represents a time of lost opportunity for a nation basking in unprecedented prosperity. Americans can only wonder what might have been if 1998 and beyond had not been engulfed in the flames of his illicit relationship with his former intern, Monica Lewinsky.

What's been lost

Ms. Lewinsky, figuratively speaking, lost her life - that is, the relatively normal life she might have had. Independent counsel Kenneth Starr, while a hero in conservative circles, has for much of the nation become the quintessence of the overzealous prosecutor. He himself acknowledges his dream of someday being nominated for the US Supreme Court has now passed.

The list of losers, people who have gained a certain notoriety for their proximity to the president, goes on and on - beginning with presidential secretary Betty Currie, Clinton aide Sydney Blumenthal, and former White House volunteer Kathleen Willey, whose alleged groping at the hands of the president put her face onto front pages.

But the final picture can be painted much more ambiguously. And with time, history may come to alter today's images of the principal characters. Many people have won and lost simultaneously - Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vernon Jordan, even Clinton himself. He will be acquitted, after all, by every projection.

In one sense, the biggest winner of all is the American people, and they don't even know it, says Bill Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. "If there had been no polls, then there would be no Clinton," says Mr. Schneider. "A year ago, Democrats weren't stepping out to save the president. The press declared his administration over. Republicans let the press carry the message.... Nobody defended him until the polls started coming in and the people said, 'We don't want him out.' "

This is not to say that the American public has enjoyed spending the past year keeping their children away from news broadcasts and fielding tough questions about adult matters.

The first lady has emerged as perhaps the most complex figure in the scandal, placing her high on the list of both winners and losers. Her public popularity has never been higher, but for reasons that she would rather not have had to handle - that she has stood tall in the face of enormous personal adversity and humiliation.

On the whole, Congress has lost big this past year, especially the Republicans. A recent New York Times/CBS poll shows that most of the public believes the Senate has handled impeachment as badly as the House did, and that Republicans deserve most of the blame.

Democrats gain

The national Democratic Party reported an unexpected windfall in donations for January, taking in $2 million when it expected only $1 million. The Republicans, who perpetually beat the Democrats in fund-raising, reply that they too took in $2 million last month, no more and no less than expected.

Beyond fund-raising, the Democrats as a political team - under the leadership of Rep. Richard Gephardt in the House and Sen. Tom Daschle in the Senate - also managed to gain, despite the enormous potential for division over their president's behavior. "They managed ... to separate out Clinton's personal behavior from the constitutional and fundamental political issues involved," says Joel Aberbach, a political scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles. "To escape ... unscathed as a political party is pretty impressive."

As individuals, many key figures in the saga had much to lose and little to gain. Topping that list might be Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and lead House prosecutor in the Senate trial. After nearly 25 years in the House, Mr. Hyde had built a reputation for distinguished, intelligent leadership.

Now Hyde's own constituents are taking him down a few notches. After returning him to Congress last fall with 67 percent of the vote, a Chicago Tribune poll shows support among his voters has dropped to 53 percent. "That's not a winner," says Clyde Wilcox, a political scientist at Georgetown University here.

None of the other House prosecutors has exactly enhanced his reputation, either, though almost all (like Hyde) come from safe Republican districts.

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