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The Meaning of Is
The fight to save the presidency
By Steven Martinovich
When historians begin to seriously analyze his presidency, they may come to the conclusion that Bill Clinton was the luckiest man ever to hold the highest office in the land. Thanks to fate, Clinton was able to preside over a deceptively quiet time in the world in which the United States was enjoying its unquestioned dominance. A mediocre president could have merely passed time and have been considered a success but an intelligent and talented man like Clinton could been the next John F. Kennedy Jr.
Luck, of course, is something you have take advantage of and Clinton was unable to do that. Beginning with his candidacy and stretching through to the last day of his two terms in office, Clinton was at the center of a torrent of scandals that often robbed him of his ability to act. The worst of them landed Clinton in the midst of an impeachment process that divided Americans and essentially made him a lame duck for the final two years of his second term.
Bob Barr, a former congressman from Georgia, was the man who started the process in the House of Representatives in 1997. Concerned about Clinton's abuse of power, attacks on the constitution and damage to national security, Barr decided that the president needed to be held accountable. What he hoped would be a somber and responsible investigation of the president's misdeeds turned instead into a political circus revolving around a blue dress, an intern and a debate over what counted as a sexual act.
Barr documents his struggles to have Clinton impeached in The Meaning of Is: The Squandered Impeachment and Wasted Legacy of William Jefferson Clinton. Befitting his past as a criminal prosecutor for the Department of Justice, Barr builds a persuasive case why he believed impeachment was necessary and the battles he had to fight against Democrat and Republican alike to move the process forward. Although he, Ken Starr and their allies were blasted as sex obsessed partisans eager to take down a president for his private indiscretions, Barr argues that his goals were more honourable, that it was the country that he was trying to protect from a president's wayward actions.
Contrary to popular belief, Barr writes that his primary concerns were the rule of law and national security. Barr charges that Clinton essentially sold access to his presidency and many classified secrets, particularly to China, in exchange for campaign contributions. Personal liberties were infringed upon in episodes like Waco and legislation that expanded the powers of law enforcement. To add insult to injury, Clinton himself allegedly obstructed justice, perjured himself and tampered with witnesses in a bid to put an early end to the Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky scandals. For someone as devoted to the constitution and tradition as Barr is, the mounting list of offences drove him to action.
Although the media recorded the impeachment battle as Republicans vs. Democrats, the reality was different. Although the House passed the articles of impeachment, Barr's toughest fight was with Senate Republicans. Afraid the political fallout would harm their careers, they did little to assist him -- sometimes even working openly to oppose him -- in presenting his case to the Senate. Barr's case wasn't helped by the fact that he was limited to the charges contained in the Starr Report, which primarily focused on the Lewinsky scandal, causing many to view his efforts as a moral crusade. Not surprisingly, the vote on the articles broke on party lines with some Republicans crossing over to vote with their Democratic peers.
Barr argues that by not removing Clinton from office, Congress sent the message to future presidents that they would likely survive a scandal no matter how egregious their behavior. Many of the protections put in place after Watergate to limit presidential abuses were ignored and a president who ignored his constitutional obligations was allowed to finish his term. Although Clinton essentially won the battle over his presidency, Barr argues that the president wasn't vindicated and in fact the impeachment process revealed him to the world for what he really was.
"In my view, Bill Clinton will go down in history as a failed president because he had the intelligence and opportunity required for greatness but suffered from fundamental character flaws. By the end of his eight years in the White House, the American people understood this fact. They had expected so much from him and he had failed to deliver on so many fronts, a failure made worse by the fact that his promises had been so grandiose. There is no core to Bill Clinton, no principle he will not sell out, no lie he will not tell, no rule he will not break if he believes doing so will best serve his immediate interests."
We're only a few years removed from the Clinton presidency and yet for many it feels like a distant era. It belongs to the pre-September 11, 2001 world, a time many took a holiday from taking the world very seriously. Barr believes, with justification, that had Clinton been removed as president the United States would have not only survived but been stronger as a result. Standards -- political and legal -- would have been reinforced and future presidents would have to have been more circumspect before abusing their power and harming the nation. Although many judged Barr and his peers harshly at the time, history may regard his quest as an opportunity missed.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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