Clinton on Trial

Clinton on Trial

Notes from different corners of the world.
Dec. 18 1998 9:30 PM

Clinton on Trial

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Suspicious Minds

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The Republicans wag the fox.

The most impressive sophistry of Wednesday comes courtesy of House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas. As journalists gather outside the House Republicans' private caucus, Armey's press secretary distributes a short press release. (The media mob is so frenzied that another reporter literally tries to tear a copy out of my hands.)

The release reads, "The suspicion that some people have about the president's motives in this attack is itself a powerful argument for impeachment. ... These doubts may or may not be warranted ... but the fact that some Americans are expressing these doubts shows that the president is losing his ability to lead."

This reminds me of the 1980s' trendiest accusation: "the appearance of a conflict of interest." If someone thinks you have a conflict of interest--even if you don't--that's just as bad as your actually having a conflict of interest, because it undermines the public's trust in you.

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Armey's accusation is not that the president actually has bad motives, but that "some people"--such as his political enemy Dick Armey--think he has bad motives.

So lemme get this straight: Because Armey and Co. want to impeach Clinton, they don't trust his Iraq motives. Because they don't trust his Iraq motives, well, that means he should be impeached. This is a perfect circle of illogic.

Mercifully, I make it through the entire evening on Capitol Hill without hearing any member of Congress actually say "Wag the Dog"--or "Wag the Dog-type scenario," as one TV producer insists on calling it. Nor does any Republican note the suspicious coincidence that Robert De Niro, star of Wag the Dog, has spent the past few days lobbying members of Congress to oppose impeachment. Nor does anyone connect the movie to the Iraq assault's code name: Operation Desert Fox. Wag the fox? (Speaking of Desert Fox, doesn't anyone in the U.S. military remember World War II? Since when do we name our missions after Nazi generals?)

But the Republicans don't have to mention Wag the Dog; it's the subtext of every word they say. GOP House members are seething as they walk through the Capitol basement on their way in and out of their caucus. "He already did this when he got in trouble this summer," barks Alabama Rep. Spencer Bachus. "He spent $100 million to blow up a drugstore in Sudan and a few camels in Afghanistan. ...We have very legitimate reasons to question the motivation for this attack."

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"[The bombing] is an insult," flames Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California. "The American people can no longer trust him." (Rohrabacher, like numerous Republicans, appears unable to even speak Clinton's name, calling the president "he" or "him" instead.) It is actually a bit frightening to be around the Republicans: They are boiling over with the kind of rage that professional politicians usually manage to hide. They really believe Clinton is trying to play them.

But they don't seem to understand that their rage is the best evidence that Clinton isn't trying to play them. Any idiot--and Clinton is not just any idiot--could have predicted that a night-before-impeachment Tomahawking of Iraq would provoke Republican outrage and increase the likelihood of impeachment. Which is exactly what is happening: Another 10 undecided Republicans announce their support for impeachment today. A "Wag the Dog-type scenario" only works if Congress and the American people don't suspect they are being manipulated. Congress and the American people are all suspicion.

This suggests--and call me a political naif for saying so--that President Clinton really did order the airstrikes for the reasons he said he did. The UNSCOM report was released, Ramadan was looming, and a speedy response was required. And if he had waited till after impeachment, you can be sure Republicans would have been outraged, too. ("He is holding our foreign policy hostage to domestic political concerns!")

Connie Morella is running for something.

The Undecideds virtually grab reporters in the halls to announce their decisions to support impeachment. All except Rep. Connie Morella, R-Md. Morella, who still hasn't made up her mind. She rounds a corner into a gauntlet of reporters, and one shouts, "Look, it's an undecided moderate!" Before anyone can shout a question, Morella spins around and sprints away. I have never seen a member of Congress run so fast.