Why It Has Lasted This Long

Bombs and political fortunes are falling faster than fir trees this Christmas season.

While a stunned nation divided its public attention between impeachment and the bombing of Iraq, House Speaker-designate Bob Livingston added another unprecedented drama to the mix by announcing his resignation barely 48 hours after he admitted engaging in extramarital affairs.

In his surprise exit announcement to the House, the 55-year-old Louisiana Republican made it clear that he wanted the president's company in committing political hara-kiri. But quicker than you can say "William Jefferson Clinton," the White House replied that Mr. Livingston would be traveling into the private sector alone.

Livingston's appetizer was followed by the main course: For only the second time in history, the House impeached a president. Lesser events have crushed strong men, but not the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

A key reason why the White House sex scandal has gone on for so long is Mr. Clinton's refusal to give up, even in the face of unprecedented political assaults and public embarrassments. The most intimate details of his sexual behavior have been broadcast around the planet, yet he keeps on ticking.

By contrast, Livingston was knocked out in the first round. Democratic presidential hopeful Gary Hart quickly crashed and burned after his extramarital affair with Donna Rice was exposed a decade ago.

Politics aside, most men in public life - in their role as husbands, fathers and members of the community - simply cannot withstand the kind of public humiliation and embarrassment a sex scandal inflicts on them and their families.

Modern American history's most prominent exception to this rule - by far - is Bill Clinton. Going back to the 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton has withstood the public slings and arrows of Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky. He has admitted to extramarital affairs with two of these women, which puts him two confessions ahead of every other president in history. [Grover Cleveland was hit by charges that he fathered an illegitimate child. Cleveland responded to the assault by simply staying at home during the presidential campaign. Once Cleveland was elected, things quickly died down.]

Mr. Clinton has so far survived the most massive document dump in presidential history. The Republican Congress released thousands of embarrassing and painful pages of evidence on his affair with Lewinsky. Every cough and comma of his videotaped grilling by Ken Starr's men was nationally televised.

The result, so far, is this: Bill Clinton sits in the White House working on a battle plan for his trial in the Senate where, on paper, the GOP is 12 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to remove him from office. Meanwhile, two of his most prominent Republican enemies, Bob Livingston and Newt Gingrich, are contemplating the joys of private life.

There is no explantion for the amazing emotional and psychological constitution that enables Bill Clinton to endure humiliation that would crush most mortals. It's a puzzle that cable TV's constant parade of pundits and psychiatrists has yet to unravel. But like the setting of the sun and Baywatch, it's fact of life.

The remainder of the impeachment-that-refused-to-die equation is relatively easy to explain. Removal of the president was thought to be dead letter following the surprising Democratic gains in the November election.

Some fundamental political dynamics, however, changed the picture. Moderate Republicans who held the balance of power in the deeply divided House were quickly persuaded that voting against impeachment would be hazardous to their political health.

Angry and unforgiving Republican conservatives who wanted Mr. Clinton's scalp would challenge them in primary elections. And what, pray tell, could Bill Clinton give to Republicans willing to take the great risk of voting to extend his political career? All but a handful of the moderates quickly fell into line and the president's fate in the House was sealed.

With a Senate trial in the offing, Mr. Clinton faces an uncertain political future. But it would be foolish to count him out. As even his most ardent critics would admit, the man has more political lives than a whole litter of cats.

By Dan Collins ©1998 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved