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Looking back at Clinton scandal, a decade later

"The Death of American Virtue" by author Ken Gormley tells the complete and revealing story of the scandals that nearly destroyed Bill Clinton’s presidency. The book reflects a decade of research and unprecedented access. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

“The Death of American Virtue,” by author and interim dean and professor of law at Duquesne University Ken Gormley, tells the complete and revealing story of the scandals that nearly destroyed Bill Clinton’s presidency. The book reflects a decade of research and unprecedented access. An excerpt.

Chapter one: Collision in the capitol
The impeachment vote It was an unusual day for a vote that might extinguish a presidency.

Congress rarely did official business on Saturdays, let alone just before the Christmas holiday. But on this morning — December 19, 1998 — with a chilly rain pelting the dome of the Capitol, lights were blazing in every office on the House of Representatives side. Fax machines spewed out confidential messages. President Bill Clinton had just launched a surprise attack in the Persian Gulf against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, prompting cries of “Wag the Dog!” by angry Republicans. Now, after a day’s postponement out of deference to military troops, the appointed hour had arrived.

Henry Hyde, distinguished Republican from Illinois, strode to the wooden lectern. He was wearing a dark blue suit and red tie befitting the seriousness of the occasion. As chairman of the powerful House Judiciary Committee, the white-maned Congressman Hyde had been responsible for drafting all four articles of impeachment against the forty-second president: Article I accused William Jefferson Clinton of lying to a federal grand jury in connection with the Monica Lewinsky affair; Article II charged him with lying under oath in the sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Paula Jones, an Arkansas employee when Clinton was governor; Article III alleged obstruction of justice and subornation of perjury; Article IV alleged a general “misuse and abuse” of Clinton’s high office.

Chairman Hyde would remember this as a “somber, somber” day. The Republicans, herded into line by Majority Whip Tom DeLay, were optimistic that they could push through at least one article. Yet, as Hyde would admit five years later to the day, seated in his suburban Chicago office surrounded by a career’s worth of political memorabilia, he felt that he had a “tiger by the tail.” He had no idea what would happen when he wrestled that tiger to the ground, or which combatant would survive the struggle.

A strange unease gripped the House chamber. Pornographer Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine, had just run a full-page ad in the Washington Post offering a million-dollar bounty for information leading to “evidence of illicit sexual relations” involving members of Congress, especially prominent Republicans. Flynt had dubbed the Starr Report “more depraved and scandalous” than any act Bill Clinton had committed. Now the pornographer had set out to expose the “hypocrisy” of this impeachment drive. As the seventy-four-year-old Hyde stepped to the microphone, he cursed how things had taken such an ugly turn. It was bad enough that Hyde himself had recently been the victim of an attack by the liberal Internet publication Salon. That magazine had revealed that Hyde had engaged in an adulterous affair with a hairdresser named Cherie Snodgrass in 1965, back when Hyde was forty-one years old. Now, thirty-three years later, with his wife Jeanne dead of breast cancer and his four grown children raising children of their own, Hyde had been forced to confess his “youthful indiscretions,” the most humiliating experience of his four decades in public life.

In this city infested with political vipers, it seemed that no politician was safe. A day earlier, Flynt’s offer of blood money had ensnared Hyde’s colleague, Representative Bob Livingston (a Republican from Louisiana), the man slated to replace Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House in the wake of the disastrous midterm elections in November. Capitol Hill’s Roll Call now reported that Livingston had engaged in a host of extramarital liaisons — with a female judge in Louisiana, with a lobbyist, and with a member of his own staff. Representative Livingston had tried to blunt the attack, calling Flynt a “bottom feeder.” To this, Flynt replied smugly, “Well, that’s right. But look what I found when I got down there.” Everywhere one turned, there appeared to be destruction, carnage, bodies littered across the road. On this historic Saturday morning, Henry Hyde was still determined to do his constitutional duty.

A photographic retrospective of embarrassing episodes.

Democrats and Republicans took turns at the microphone, alternately defending and excoriating President Bill Clinton. Chairman Hyde yielded two minutes of time to his friend, Speaker designate Bob Livingston. What Livingston would say, under these odd circumstances, Hyde had no idea.

“You know,” Hyde whispered to Livingston as he brushed past him stiffly, “these things blow over.”

Speaker pro tem Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), a huge American flag draped behind him, wielded the gavel like a railroad man prepared to pound steel ties into the track. He pronounced somberly: “Proceed.” Livingston arranged his typed remarks on the lectern. Tall, thin, silver-haired, and famous for his unflappable demeanor, Bob Livingston was a model of congressional comportment. Today there was something ill at ease about his appearance.

“Mr. Speaker,” he began. The time was 9:45 a.m.

Livingston had completed writing out this statement the previous night in a fit of insomnia, wrestling with demons that this Clinton madness had unleashed. He wore a dark pin-striped suit and a Christmas tie; the latter conveyed not a hint of yuletide cheer. “We are all pawns on the chessboard,” Livingston read through his bifocals, “and we are playing our parts in a drama that is neither fiction nor unimportant.”

Those who knew Bob Livingston recognized that there was something strange about his delivery. The normally strong and confident fifty-five-year-old lawyer from New Orleans was fiddling with his fingers and straightening his tie. “I will vote to impeach the president of the United States and ask that his case be considered by the United States Senate,” said the Speaker designate. He touched the microphone nervously, as if reaching for some fixed object to steady him.

“To the president I would say: Sir, you have done great damage to this nation over this past year.” Livingston’s hands flew out of control, making gestures and pointing as if out of sync with his speech. “You, sir, may resign your post.”

The Democrats erupted into boos, hisses, and catcalls.

Livingston’s face became pinched and defiant. He had been stewing over this segment of the speech ever since that vile pornographer Larry Flynt had “outed” him. The previous day, he had ripped up the draft into a hundred pieces. “It just needs a kicker,” he had said to his secretary, Raine Simpson, his eyes puffy with exhaustion. “It needs a better ending.”

At two or three in the morning, Congressman Livingston had awakened in a cold sweat, lying beside his wife, Bonnie, his faithful mate of thirty years. At that god-awful hour it had struck him like a fiery bolt: “I realized what the ending was going to be,” he recalled years later.

Bob Livingston now stared at the sea of angry Democratic colleagues, raising his hand like a policeman to halt them.

“You resign!” they shouted back, unfazed by the Speaker designate’s quivering hand. “You resign!”

Speaker pro tem LaHood pounded his gavel. He bellowed over the melee, “The House will be in order!”

Livingston waited for a lull. Then he delivered the punch line with a loud and defiant voice: “And I can only challenge him [President Clinton] in such fashion if I am willing to heed my own words.” There came a scattering of gasps.

The House fell into silence, as if members suddenly recognized what was about to happen.

“To my colleagues, my friends, and most especially my wife and family,” Livingston said, delivering his own eulogy, “I have hurt you all deeply, and I beg your forgiveness.”

The congressman’s hands shook as he gripped the sheet of paper. “I must set the example that I hope President Clinton will follow. Mr. Speaker ... I shall vacate my seat and ask my governor to call a special election to take my place.”

Pandemonium now erupted on both sides of the aisle, like an earthquake shaking the foundations of a city. Livingston spoke over the din: “I thank my wife most especially for standing by me. I love her very much.”

As his final declamation in the well of Congress, the dishonored representative declared, “God bless America.”

Livingston grabbed his sheaf of papers, looking like a man who had just walked into the mouth of hell. Members stood up, uncertain how to handle the news. They burst into spontaneous applause that filled the House chamber like the roar in the Roman Colosseum after a dozen lions had been unleashed. Democrats and Republicans pounded their hands together, giving ovations for wholly different reasons. Journalists scribbled frantically on note pads, preparing urgent news releases to inform the world that one of the most powerful congressmen had just resigned and had dared President Clinton to do the same.

Chairman Henry Hyde slumped back in his chair, absorbing this latest bombshell with a sense of deep sorrow. He later recalled, “I wished he had stuck it out .... I’d have liked to see an honest show of hands of members who had had the same experience [of marital infidelity].” Said Hyde, with undisguised bitterness, “I felt it was an unnecessary waste of a good member.”

David Schippers, chief counsel to the Judiciary Committee and close ally of Hyde’s, stood at the rear of the hall in a state of shock. He walked over, draped his arm around Bob Livingston, and told him, “I hope to God you’ll be back.” Schippers perceived, suddenly, that the Democrats “were acting disgraceful.”

He could hear them laughing. “They were taking pleasure in our discomfiture,” he later said. Within the Republican caucus, a new strain of anger was bubbling up. “We felt that Clinton was behind it all,” said Schippers. “That was his mode of operation.”

Democratic representative José Serrano of New York, who had taken over the microphone, only incensed Republicans further by declaring, “My constituents don’t hate Bill Clinton. They love him and pray for him at this moment. .. The bullies get theirs, and you’re going to get yours too!”

Democratic leader Dick Gephardt hustled out of the cloakroom and offered an olive branch, urging Livingston, for the good of the American people, to reconsider his resignation and calling upon both parties to end the “politics of personal destruction.” The Republicans weren’t buying it. They were convinced that Clinton and his political operatives were behind the Democratic leader’s insincere expression of sympathy. “I somehow think of Aesop’s fable about the crocodile tears,” Robert Livingston later said.

Order was finally restored, long enough for members of Congress to vote on the impeachment question. Two counts passed with solid majorities — those relating to Clinton’s lying in front of the grand jury and his obstruction of justice. Two articles failed — those relating to Clinton’s lying in the Paula Jones deposition and his general abuse of high office. The vote was strictly along party lines.

David Schippers turned to a Republican staffer and gasped, “My God, they have just impeached the president of the United States!”

As pandemonium erupted, members of Congress took refuge in the restrooms as reporters flooded into the halls. One of Bob Livingston’s fellow Republicans, looking shell-shocked, told a reporter, “This has not been a rational day.”

Years later, after building a successful international lobbying firm and leaving this nightmare behind him, Robert Livingston would reconstruct his decision to resign: “I stood up and resigned my job in an effort to convince the president of the United States that he had done wrong.” Livingston’s voice turned hard, almost icy: “I wanted him gone. I wanted him impeached. I wanted him to be shown for the liar under oath that he was when he was president of the United States and [that] he violated his oath of office to the United States of America.” To accomplish this, Livingston said, he was prepared to “take the heat.”

President Clinton would later disavow any participation in the “outing” of Representative Livingston by Larry Flynt, or in the chaotic events that brought down Bob Livingston. “I knew nothing about it,” Clinton said, sitting calmly at his home in Chappaqua, New York. Although Clinton had “always liked” Livingston as a political acquaintance, he was disappointed at how Livingston had “rah-rahed along with Gingrich and DeLay on the impeachment.” Livingston’s fall from grace in his own personal sex scandal, as Clinton saw it, was “just one more example of [the Republicans’] hypocrisy.” The former president continued: “The interesting thing was, Larry Flynt turned out to be a better guy than Ken Starr. I mean basically, the story was that Mrs. Livingston went to him and pleaded with him not to release any more of the details. And [he agreed to that after] Livingston resigned from Congress.”

Clinton also scoffed at the assertion that Livingston’s resignation was driven by some sort of moral reawakening. The president’s intelligence from behind enemy lines indicated that the Republican leadership “came to [Livingston] and said he would have to quit, not because they were upset about what he did, but because he was standing in the way of my impeachment.”

Chairman Hyde walked back through the marble halls of Congress on that cold Saturday in December, somberly contemplating what a Senate trial might look like. This had been “a heavy day,” Hyde would admit, reflecting upon the weekend when he garnered enough votes to impeach the president of the United States. Glancing at the chilly rain pelting against the windows of the now empty Capitol, the representative from Illinois knew that the days ahead would be even heavier.

In Arkansas, time momentarily stood still. Christmas shoppers in downtown Little Rock paused on the streets. Supporters and detractors of Bill Clinton alike froze in their tracks, absorbing the news: The House of Representatives had voted to impeach the first native son of Arkansas ever to occupy the White House.

The day in Little Rock was gray and chilly. A cold front, moving east with light showers, kept temperatures hovering below fifty degrees. Over municipal buildings, red, blue, and white state flags of Arkansas snapped in the breeze. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette had already begun printing Sunday papers bearing the black headline “Impeached.” Salvation Army volunteers along West Markham Street held their bells silent. The Rose Law Firm, where First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton had launched her legal career before moving to Washington, seemed to be paralyzed as if hit by an ice storm. Festive holly wreaths adorning the wooden doors hung like flora stricken by a killing frost. A dozen Mercedes in the parking lot sat idle, as if their batteries had unexpectedly died. Inside the redbrick building, lawyers sat frozen in front of portable television sets, watching replays of the vote tally.

The latest reports from Washington cut in over sound systems of downtown department stores, momentarily interrupting Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas,” a sacred anthem in Little Rock. Elvis was still king in this Southern town; yet even Elvis had to take a backseat today to the shocking news being broadcast from Washington.

Bill Clinton’s closest friends were numb from disbelief.

Skip Rutherford, who had cast one of Arkansas’s electoral votes during Clinton’s triumphant victory of 1992, drove home from his downtown Little Rock office, collapsed in front of the television in his den, and refused to take calls. In this same room, Rutherford had answered a barrage of media calls the night his friend Vince Foster had committed suicide in 1993 — after Vince had gone to Washington to help Bill and Hillary make a difference. Now all Rutherford had the strength to do was watch a flickering Walton Family Christmas Special, one of his childhood favorites about an honest mountain family that struggled through hard times in the Depression. He watched for hours, with the telephone wire yanked out of the wall, until sleep extinguished this bad dream.

Joe Purvis, who had attended kindergarten with Clinton in the little town of Hope, back when Bill Clinton’s name was still “Billy Blythe” and their mothers had pushed them on swings together, was traveling to Washington to attend a White House Christmas party. Purvis and his wife, Susan, caught the news while changing planes in Cincinnati. The couple looked at each other in horror. Purvis whispered, “My God....” The burly Purvis was big enough to pick Clinton up and throw him into the nearest river, and he felt like doing it now. Among other things, Bill had lied to his face, by flat-out denying the affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Yet the real culprit, Purvis felt, was not Bill Clinton. What ever had happened with this young intern “was really no one’s business but Bill’s and Monica Lewinsky’s and Hillary’s.” In Purvis’s mind, the true villain here was Kenneth Starr, the Whitewater independent counsel run amok. “I was appalled that Mr. Starr would issue this report that bordered on voyeurism,” he would explain, “trying to get a minute description of every sordid little detail of an encounter. Then printing it up ... and Congress publishing the thing and putting it on the Internet and turning it loose. Talk about obscenity.”

Purvis believed there was another group of bad guys — the extremists leading the Republican Congress, who had decided to press impeachment at all costs. They had proclaimed: “We don’t give a damn what the American people have said [in rebuffing the Republicans in the November elections]. We want impeachment, and we’re going to do it.” They were hell-bent on killing Bill Clinton’s presidency, regardless of the destruction it rained down on the country.

Arkansas Supreme Court Justice David Newbern had known the Clintons since his days teaching at University of Arkansas Law School, back when Bill and Hillary had arrived in Fayetteville as young professors. Then-Governor Clinton had appointed him to the Court of Appeals in 1978. Now, on the verge of retirement from the state’s highest court, he owed a great debt of gratitude to Bill. Sitting with his wife, Carolyn, in the kitchen of their home in the Hillcrest neighborhood of Little Rock, Newbern couldn’t shake several disturbing images from his head. Mostly, he was thinking about “the promise Bill Clinton had as a young person.”

He was also thinking, specifically, about Hillary. A picture of Bill and Hillary, at the time they had just joined the law faculty at Fayetteville, flashed into his mind: One Sunday afternoon, the Clintons had attended a reception at the Newberns’ home on a tree-lined street off College Avenue. The senior professor had been standing on the porch with Hillary when he caught her stealing a glance across the street at a quaint home with a For Sale sign posted. The expression on Hillary’s face seemed to indicate that she “was thinking about the life they were about to lead [once Bill got into politics] and the life that they could lead if they wanted to just settle down. Stay there in Fayetteville — which is preposterous when you stop to think about it, given what occurred after that.” Yet as Newbern watched the impeachment votes recorded on his television screen on this Saturday in December, “it just struck me how different their lives would have been” if Bill and Hillary had told each other, “Let’s forget all this political stuff and become law professors, real law professors, and stay here.” As news commentators droned on about the impeachment, the image of Hillary staring wistfully at an old house in Fayetteville haunted him. The thought that Newbern couldn’t chase out of his mind was, Had Bill Clinton’s successes been worth the costs to him and his family?

Excerpted from “The Death of American Virtue” by Ken Gormley. Copyright (c) 2010. Reprinted with permission from Random House.