Rep. Bob Barr

Rep. Bob Barr

Rep. Bob Barr

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Feb. 22 1998 3:30 AM

Rep. Bob Barr

He shouts what his fellow Republicans won't even whisper: Impeach Clinton!


Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., is the id of the Republican Congress, the rage beneath its tense smiles. Republican leaders cower at Clinton's poll numbers, too fearful even to whisper what they call "the I-word." Barr, meanwhile, is furiously pushing impeachment. For the past year, the second-term representative has been shouting out loud what many of his GOP colleagues only think: that Clinton has betrayed the public trust, that he has corrupted the White House, that he's deeply sleazy, and that he should go.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.


In November, long before Monica, Barr introduced a resolution to open a congressional impeachment inquiry: Clinton, reads its text, "has engaged in a systemic effort to obstruct, undermine, and compromise ... the executive branch." And since Clinterngate broke, Barr has been in a state of high gloat. He's now preparing articles of impeachment and happily adding obstruction of justice and perjury to his list of Clintonian high crimes.

Barr has become what the Gingrich Congress was supposed to be. After the 1994 Republican revolution, tough tactics and rabid conservatism were expected to replace give-and-take and moderation. But when Clinton outflanked them and Gingrich's ethics problems embarrassed them, even the party's most intransigent ideologues learned the necessity of compromise. Barr, one of 73 members of the legendary "freshman class" of 1994, seized the opening. He had campaigned as a run-of-the-mill anti-tax, pro-family, rock-solid conservative. As the Gingrich crew weakened, Barr repositioned himself. The GOP leaned left toward Clinton, Barr went right. He advanced himself as the spokesman for the abandoned conservative fringes, as an entrepreneur of right-wing anger.

Barr can afford it. He has one of Congress' safest seats. His west Georgia district used to be represented by the head of the John Birch Society, and it voted for Pat Buchanan in 1996. You can't be too conservative for the Seventh District, though Barr is giving it a good try. He has attached himself to the usual list of silly far-right causes: no U.S. troops under U.N. command, a two-thirds majority to raise taxes, a flag-burning amendment, etc. But Barr's real genius has been igniting nasty fires over issues that Republican leaders would rather ignore. He is more than willing to embarrass party leaders over matters of principle. In 1996, for example, the twice-divorced Barr drafted the so-called Defense of Marriage Act banning gay marriage. Barr forced a reluctant GOP leadership to move the bill by whipping up support among conservative Christians. With his usual light touch he blasted "homosexual extremists" and their "deviant way of life." ("The flames of hedonism, the flames of narcissism, the flames of self-centered morality are licking at the very foundation of society.") The bill passed.


B arr, the only member of Congress whose fondness for guns exceeds the National Rifle Association's, also led the attempt to repeal Clinton's assault-weapons ban. The GOP brass wanted to leave the ban alone: There is little upside to endorsing semiautomatic weapons. But Barr's grandstanding threatened to mobilize the gun nuts against the party, so Gingrich let the bill go to a floor vote.


On impeachment, too, Barr is happy to buck his party and speak for Clinton-haters. (Philosophy: Extremism in pursuit of Clinton is no vice.) Besides introducing his resolution, Barr published a law-review article on the history of impeachment and Clinton's fitness for it, and wrote a glowing foreword to R. Emmett Tyrrell's The Impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton. Since Clinterngate broke, Barr has been Capitol Hill's hottest interview. All this has played brilliantly among those irked by the GOP's silence on impeachment. "He's a hero among conservatives who have felt abandoned by the Republican Party. He's almost the only one in the House who is thought of kindly," says Larry Klayman, chairman of the conservative legal-rights group Judicial Watch and fellow impeachment-phile.

(Barr, like many cultural conservatives, is flummoxed by America's continued affection for the president: "If the poll results are true and Americans really don't want their leaders to be held personally accountable, then we are in pretty sad shape as a country," he says.)

Barr has the temperament of a Grand Inquisitor--a moralist in a rationalist's body. Barr is a former U.S. attorney, and his prosecutorial zeal is notorious. He interrogates hostile (read "liberal") witnesses with a chilliness that astonishes congressional staffers. He never smiles when a frown will do, never skips a chance to seize the moral high ground. At a recent hearing on partial-birth abortion, Barr told a pro-choice witness that she and her allies were "very hardened, very cold, very callous ...[and] have developed, I'm sad to say, a moral blind spot."

Democrats say exactly the same thing about Barr himself. The family-values defender is not only twice-divorced but has also been sued for child support. He was also once photographed licking whipped cream off a buxom woman's breasts. It was at a charity fund raiser, he says, and he did it to raise $200 for leukemia research.

Part of the Democrats' dislike of Barr undoubtedly stems from annoyance with his persistence and effectiveness. But part of it is personal. Even his admirers admit he's "dour" and "humorless." (His enemies use words like "mean" and "heartless.") House Judiciary Committee staffers can't recall a single occasion on which Barr cooperated with Democrats. During last month's State of the Union address, every member of Congress, Republican and Democratic, rose repeatedly to give Clinton standing ovations. Except Bob Barr: He sat, glaring and silent, through the entire speech.

It would be a mistake to confuse Barr's skill at setting fires with real power. He has gathered only 20 co-sponsors for his impeachment resolution, almost all of them GOP wing-nuts. (One, Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, has suggested that Clinton be court-martialed for his treatment of Paula Jones. Another co-sponsor, Rep. Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho, belongs to the black-helicopter school of government.) The Republicans who hold real power keep Barr at a distance. House Rules Committee Chairman Gerald Solomon, R-N.Y., has so far refused to schedule a hearing on Barr's resolution. A spokesman for the Judiciary Committee scoffs at the idea that Barr will introduce articles of impeachment to the committee. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, has compared Barr to former Rep. Henry Gonzalez, the nuttiest, most obsessive Democrat of the last generation. If impeachment hearings do occur, it will be because Gingrich and his lieutenants favor them, not because Barr does.

Barr, who's a champion publicity hound, has national ambitions. During Clinterngate, some admirers have begun comparing him to Newt Gingrich, his fellow Georgia Republican. Barr throws Molotov cocktails from the back benches, just as Gingrich once did. Gingrich rose to fame by destroying a powerful Democrat (House Speaker Jim Wright); Barr is making his name by trying to topple Clinton. Gingrich rejected the timidity of Republican leaders and held himself out as the true conservative champion; so does Barr. Barr too may hope to ride right-wing indignation to national power, but don't count on it. Gingrich may have been a vicious partisan, but he is also sunny of temperament, cooperative, optimistic. Barr is none of these: You can't rule Congress with a glower.