WASHINGTON - In the climactic hours before William Jefferson Clinton was voted into history today as the second president to be impeached, the White House fiercely denounced the "politics of personal destruction" and said the president would not give in to calls for his resignation.
Clinton's spokesman, Joe Lockhart, said the president was "very disappointed" by this morning's announcement by Speaker-elect Robert L. Livingston that he would resign from Congress next year because of revelations that he had had extramarital affairs. He said Clinton was calling on Livingston to reconsider his decision.
"The president firmly believes that the politics of personal destruction in this town and this country has to come to an end, and it has to stop soon," Lockhart said.
Rejecting Livingston's challenge to Clinton to resign, Lockhart said: "The president is going to do what's in the best interest of this country. He's going to keep on pushing his agenda forward, and I think it would be wrong to give in to this insidious politics of personal destruction that seems so pervasive now."
The president's comments, delivered through his spokesman outside the White House this morning, came shortly before the House voted to impeach him, and shortly after Hillary Rodham Clinton made a rare trip to Capitol Hill to rally House Democrats privately to continue to support her husband.
Greeted with wild applause from Democratic lawmakers, she assured them that the president would not resign and said she believed he had been treated unfairly by the Republican-led House.
She said the impeachment process "should be done right, and that up to now it has not been," said House Demoncratic leader Richard A. Gephardt, who had invited the first lady to meet with lawmakers this morning.
At one point, Mrs. Clinton spoke in unusually personal terms about her husband.
"I love and care deeply about my husband," she said.
"She showed strength and grace and dignity on what must be a very difficult day," Rep. Chet Edwards of Texas said. "She was gracious in thanking the members of the House. She did not come to sway votes. Everybody's mind is made up. Through her appearance, she was saying, 'He will not resign. We will not give up.' "
The president himself was in the Oval Office with a friend and adviser, the Rev. Tony Campolo, during the House vote and did not watch the proceedings, according to a White House spokesman.
Clinton videotaped a Ramadan message to the Arab world early in the morning, explaining that the United States had taken military action against Saddam Hussein because the Iraqi leader "has ruled through a reign of terror against his own people and disregard for the peace of the region."
In his weekly radio address, devoted solely to the military action against Iraq, he made no mention of the impending impeachment vote. But the president was expected to address the nation from the White House today after the final vote.
In a White House glistening with Christmas trimmings -- belying the gravity of the week's proceedings and the grim faces and testy moods of the administration staff -- Clinton closeted himself in the West Wing today as the House debated his fate.
Apparently out of hope, words and strategies, Clinton did "very little" last-minute lobbying to try to turn the tide of the impending vote, his spokesman said.
Aside from an hourlong meeting with moderate Republican Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, an impeachment opponent who had recently been wavering, Clinton proceeded with his presidential duties as if it was just another day in the Oval Office.
He monitored damage reports from the U.S. air strikes against Iraq, worked on the budget, conferred with a European Union delegation and met with his AIDS council.
The only thing that distinguished his schedule, in fact, was unusually limited media access to his two official events.
According to Lockhart, Clinton watched only "a moment or two" of the House debate yesterday between his scheduled meetings and reported to his press secretary that he was in a "very good" mood -- the result, Clinton said, of seven hours of sleep Thursday night, the Christmas season and the fact that no harm had come to any of the U.S. forces deployed in Operation Desert Fox.
But while the president hunkered down in private sessions, not expected to make a public appearance until after the historic House vote on his fate, others made last-minute appeals to the nation on his behalf.
Hillary Clinton delivered a few carefully measured remarks yesterday, imploring the country to "end divisiveness."
"As we celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah and Ramadan -- and at a time for reflection and reconciliation among people -- we in our country ought to practice reconciliation and we ought to bring our country together," she said, when asked by reporters if she'd like to comment on the impeachment debate. "We ought to end divisiveness because we can do so much more together."
As the impeachment picture has looked increasingly bleak for the president, Clinton's allies have turned their attention to the Senate, which would proceed with a trial if the House approves at least one of the four articles of impeachment.
Although Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said earlier this week that the Senate would not consider anything less than a trial, Lockhart said Clinton intended to push for "some sort of bipartisan solution that will put this behind us," if not in the House, then in the Senate.
He said that a Senate trial could be damaging and disruptive to the nation, an argument used by many who have called for Clinton to resign.
But, he said, "I can't imagine a scenario where, if there were to be a trial on the Senate floor, the president wouldn't vigorously defend himself."
Noticeably testy and defensive in his briefing with reporters, the White House spokesman attacked the Republicans yesterday for devising a plan to get Clinton to resign.
"I think what you're seeing, especially in the last few days, is shift in what has been a very cynical, political strategy by the Republican leadership in the House from impeachment to a building drumbeat to try to force the president to leave office," Lockhart said.
In describing that strategy, he said, "A conscious effort was made to, in effect, dumb down impeachment and say that this process wasn't important, that the real action was someplace else. And then, having gone through it, turn 180 degrees in the other direction and say, 'It's so important to this country and it's so damaging that the president should resign.' "
He, too, insisted Clinton would not step down.
But the specter of his premature departure from office loomed anyway, showing up on one occasion yesterday in a bit of gallows humor. At the meeting of his AIDS advisory council, the president warmly greeted longtime administration aide Robert Hattoy, who arrived late.
"I'm glad you're here," the president said.
"I'm glad you're here," Hattoy replied.
Pub Date: 12/19/98