Killing Him With Kindness
Can the Republicans restrain themselves?
Strange, strange day. Late this morning, just after Newt's shockingly statesmanlike statement on CNN, I was struck by an unnerving thought: It is possible--actually possible--that the Republicans in Congress won't mess this up.
President Clinton is famously blessed by his enemies, and never more than by the Republican House, whose splenetic viciousness saved him in 1995. Since then, a chastened Gingrich & Co. have let Clinton plow over them and have learned to (pretend to) be polite and soft. Today is the day they are reaping the reward for their years of mildness.
The Republicans of 1995, after all, would have posted Starr's report on the Web in 15 minutes; opened impeachment hearings within the hour; and tried to have him convicted, packed up, and out of the White House by day's end. But the revelation of the past 24 hours is that the Republicans seem to have learned to control themselves, to hide their glee and gloat. The patient is terminally ill. They don't need to take an ax to him. All they have to do is let him expire.
Since Starr dumped the report on the Hill, the Republicans have been gushing comity and bipartisanship. Yesterday afternoon, top House Republicans overflowed with high-mindedness. Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, the kindly face of the GOP, was trotted out to be avuncular. He pledged "as much as humanly possible to do this in a bipartisan fashion so that the country will in the end be proud of us." House Majority Leader Dick Armey, hardly famed for his nonpartisan spirit, warned "any member who believes that this is a time for partisan antics, more is the pity for you. You have lost the sense of the duty and the honor of the position you have."
Both Armey and Hyde made the requisite statements of sorrow at having to deal with Flytrap at all. "I had hoped never to have to carry a responsibility of this magnitude," said Armey. "No one looks forward to this traumatic journey that we are about to enter on," echoed Hyde. (Pause for cynical, snorting laughter. Of all the lies told in the past few days, "we hate doing this" is the most absurd. Does anyone believe that Armey or Hyde or any Republican in Congress honestly dislikes this spectacle? They get fabulous publicity, a chance to be statesmanlike, the opportunity to destroy an enemy, and thrilling hearings. I suppose Armey would much prefer to be debating the Migratory Bird Hunting Bill, which was the House's other business today.)
The sobriety continued full throttle today. Every other word out of Republicans' mouths was "bipartisan." (Hear it enough, and you begin to believe it.) Gingrich took to the House floor this morning to propose "rules of decorum" for the report and to caution colleagues to "abstain from language that is personally offensive to the president." Later, he went on CNN to preach more restraint and to urge a deliberate process. Republicans promised to give Democrats on the Judiciary Committee more resources and to post the president's response to the Starr report on the Web. The GOP appeared, in short, to be cooperative, reasonable, and restrained.
Clinton is surely pinning his survival on the belief that the deep-rooted partisanship and hatred of House conservatives will boil to the surface, that they will rip off their masks and reveal the lizards below, dooming impeachment. That may still happen. There was, after all, one bit of Republican jockeying today: House leaders, at least at the time of our deadline, have denied David Kendall a look at Starr's report. (For more on the politics of the report's release, see William Saletan's " Frame Game.") And it's hard to imagine that even Hyde will be able to restrain rabid impeachers such as Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., forever. But for one day, at least, the Republicans have discovered the virtue of restraint. If they can control themselves like this for a few more months and let the damning evidence present itself, they will kill the president in the only way possible--softly.
Here is Clinton's great accomplishment of the past three weeks: When he first apologized, he made a national disgrace of himself. Now that he has apologized 10 times, he is making merely a national joke of himself.
Every time Clinton apologizes, and he has done it five times in the past day and a half, he is more and more abject. "Not appropriate" became "mistake" became "big mistake." "I regret" became "I am sorry" became "I ask for ... your forgiveness." After three weeks, he has finally learned the right lines: The most recent speeches, had he delivered them Aug. 17, would have passed muster.
But Clinton doesn't seem to realize that his apologies are undermining him. Rather than convincing America that he really, really is sorry about what he has done, the apologies are having the opposite effect. Normally so good at conjuring the correct emotion--the artfully dripping tear--Clinton blew it on Aug. 17 because he allowed himself to be honest. He was angry, and it showed. He wasn't sorry, and it showed. Each one of his apologies is more contrite than the last, but that means that each one of his apologies is less convincing than the last. Because we know that he isn't really sorry--he told us so Aug. 17--every time he says he's sorry, he seems more a liar.
What Will Hillary Say?
Of all the rings in Washington's 10-ring circus today--Clinton apologizing to the Cabinet and senators, Kendall pleading on the Hill, Gingrich orating on the House floor, Starr's grand jury meeting in the courthouse, the House Rules Committee deciding the report's fate--the most compelling is the one about which we know least: Hillary waiting in the White House.
The first lady is scheduled to introduce the president at a Democratic dinner tonight, one of her first big public appearances since Aug. 17. Clinton optimists are hoping she'll publicly forgive him and give a full-throated speech asking the American public to do the same. Perhaps it will turn the tide. Others predict she's going to keep her mouth shut because she's so furious that she can't bear to lend him a hand. Will she or won't she? We'll know that, and a whole lot else, tomorrow.
Slate's Complete Flytrap Coverage