The Clinton Impeachment, Ten Years Later

In the midst of his impeachment trial on Jan. 15, 1999, President Bill Clinton, with first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton at his side, shows signs of the strain as they listen to speeches at a Democratic National Committee dinner. AP Photo

Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and CBSNews.com.

It's been exactly ten years since the end of the Senate impeachment trial of William Jefferson Clinton. On Feb. 12, 1999, the Republican bid to prematurely terminate Clinton's second term ended with an even party-line vote -- far short of the two-thirds majority required to force out of office the 42nd President of the United States.

I can still hear in my mind's ear the voice of then-Chief Justice of the United States, William H. Rehnquist, saying the words: "Senators, how say you?" on that fateful day. The next day, The Washington Post's front page offered stories like: "Alone, President Responds With Simple Apology;" "House 'Managers' Put Brave Face on Bitter Loss," and "Hushed Galleries, Somber Senators, Powerful Moment." The New York Times added that a "dispirited" Henry Hyde, GOP leader of the impeachment movement, opposed "indicting Clinton."

Yet even while they were occurring, or at least being revealed to the public, the events which spawned the impeachment seemed unserious; a telling stain on a dress, a betrayal between friends, a cigar. But the intervening years, with their dramatic and deadly events, make the entire Clinton scandal (which I covered daily) seem like petty farce. Ten years ago, America was willing to impeach a president for lying about sex. Ten years later, there was no concomitant political push to impeach the next president for lying about the justifications for the deadly war in Iraq. Did the expensive lessons and bitter taste of the former preclude any chance for the latter? Ask Rep. John Conyers.

What is also striking about the impeachment, from the vantage point of a decade's passage, is that so many of its main characters simply receded back into normal lives. America may still not be over the partisan rancor that was roiled up during the impeachment season -- the 2000 Florida Recount sure didn't help, either -- but the people who caused the drama to unfold are just, well, living out their days. Some are still in politics. Some still in law. Some have started businesses. Thankfully, none seem to be cropping up these days on cable shows begging for attention or a book deal.

Monica Lewinsky, the intern, has gone underground and is said to be living in London after completing studies at the London School of Economics. Betty Currie, the loyal secretary who was dragged into the mess, has since retired (although she worked for President Barack Obama's transition team as secretary for John Podesta). Linda Tripp, Monica's betrayer, had massive plastic surgery, got married in 2004, and now owns a Christmas gift shop in Virginia. Paula Jones, whose civil lawsuit started the whole thing, posed nude, remarried, fought Tonya Harding in a celebrity boxing match, and now sells real estate. No one, apparently, wants to publish her book.

Kenneth Starr, the dogged special prosecutor, now is dean at Pepperdine Law School. He often involves himself in high-profile cases, including cases that come before the Supreme Court. The trial judge in the initial Paula Jones harassment case, U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright, is now chief judge of the Eastern District of Arkansas. Remember, virtually the entire impeachment spectacle took place after Judge Wright dismissed Jones v. Clinton in 1998. Clinton and Jones later settled out of court before an appeal could be heard.

And remember the Republican "managers" in the House of Representatives? They were the true believers who so aggressively prosecuted the case against Clinton in the well of the Senate? Of the 13 original managers, only three remain in Congress. One of these three, Lindsay Graham, has become a senator himself and is one of the most visible members of the GOP caucus. Ohio Republican Steve Buyer, whose tone during the drama was always a few octaves lower than his colleagues, has survived, as has Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, although the world and nation rarely hear from him anymore.

The others are gone. Bob Barr, one of the angriest and most judgmental of the managers, left the Congress, became a critic of the Bush Administration's terror law policies, and ran for president this past November as the Libertarian candidate. Asa Hutchinson served in the cabinet of President George W. Bush and is now home in Arkansas. The chairman of the House effort to oust Clinton, Henry Hyde, died in 2007. But Ray LaHood, another key Republican player in the House impeachment effort, is now a proud member of President Barack Obama's cabinet-as Transportation Secretary.

Clinton's defenders seemed to have lasted longer inside the Beltway than most of his pursuers. Lanny Breuer, who was part of the Clinton White House's legal team, is now on tap to head the Justice Department's Criminal Division. Greg Craig, vital Clinton attorney during the impeachment saga, finds himself back in the center of action as White House counsel for President Obama. Other Clinton defenders remain in legal and political positions in Washington -- except for Al Gore, of course. The same Chief Justice who presided over the impeachment, not incidentally, delivered a crucial vote against Gore to end the Florida recount and give the election to Bush. Rehnquist is dead now and, politically speaking, so is Bush. Gore went on to win a Nobel Prize.

Ten years later, it's reasonable to wonder how history might have been different had Clinton not been impeached and narrowly escaped being dismissed from office. Certainly the impeachment impacted Al Gore's 2000 campaign, and certainly that campaign gave George W. Bush an opportunity he might not otherwise have had. Would there have been a terror attack on America on September 11, 2001 without the Clinton impeachment? Would there have been a war in Iraq? An economic crisis like the one we now must endure? We will never know. History doesn't work that way.
  • Andrew Cohen

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