WASHINGTON -- At 1: 19 p.m. yesterday, history was made on the floor of the House of Representatives. There was a muffled cheer. A few spectators in the gallery applauded.
At that moment, as the decisive 218th vote was cast against him, Bill Clinton became the first elected president to be impeached. It was the subdued highlight of a day of human and political drama. But it wasn't the biggest surprise.
While U.S. missiles roared over Iraq for a fourth and final day, political bombshells were flying in Washington.
The one that fell hardest at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. was clearly the House vote to impeach Clinton and recommend his removal from office by the Senate. Even though impeachment had become inevitable, an indelible blot has been attached forever to his legacy.
But the most ominous blow may have been the one unleashed by House Speaker-designate Robert L. Livingston.
Standing in the well of the House, the epicenter of the capital's corrosive partisan combat, the Republican leader called on Clinton to step down in order to "heal the wounds that you have created."
Amid furious shouts of "You resign!" from outraged Democrats such as California's Rep. Maxine Waters, Livingston raised his right hand to silence the chamber. Then he stunned his colleagues by revealing that he would do just that.
"I must set the example that I hope President Clinton will follow," said the 55-year-old Louisianian, begging forgiveness from his wife and friends for the marital infidelities he revealed on the eve of the impeachment debate.
Livingston's decision can only make it harder for Clinton to fight impeachment, since it feeds directly into the Republican strategy that is designed to force him to leave office.
Call for resignation
Now that they have impeached him, Republicans have begun a concerted effort to force his resignation, since the Senate seems unlikely to convict him.
During the House debate and in statements released afterward, Republicans demanded that Clinton follow Livingston's example and step down for the good of the country, thus sparing himself and the nation the ordeal of an impeachment trial.
Late yesterday, Clinton made it clear that he intends to fiercely resist pressure to quit.
At a carefully choreographed White House ceremony, Clinton said he is committed to remaining in office for the final two years of his term. "Until the last hour of the last day," he said to applause from a gathering of House Democrats.
In a more-than-symbolic gesture that revealed one element of his plan to save his presidency, Clinton strode onto the South Lawn arm-in-arm with his wife. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who began last week to emerge as a more visible defender of her husband after keeping a low profile for months, could well be his most potent weapon in the coming struggle to mold public opinion.
For now, it is mostly Republicans who are calling for the president's resignation. Only three House Democrats have said he should quit or consider resigning.
Studying public opinion
But the ultimate verdict on his tenure will be rendered by the public.
Politicians in both parties will be scrutinizing polls for any sign that Americans, weary of the prolonged scandal in Washington, are ready for Clinton to end it by quitting and turning the job over to Vice President Al Gore.
Even before yesterday's House vote, there were indications that a growing number of Americans wanted Clinton to step aside if impeachment was sent to the Senate for a trial. Roughly two in five Americans -- 43 percent -- would prefer that he resign, according to the latest CBS/New York Times poll conducted before the impeachment. Only a narrow majority -- 53 percent -- said it would be better if he remain as president if impeached.
At the moment, all that stands between Clinton and removal from office are 45 Democratic senators.
Unlike in the House, where he was impeached on a highly partisan vote, it would take a bipartisan majority in the Senate to remove him after a trial and conviction. At least 12 Democrats would have to vote against the president for that to happen.
But if a large majority of Americans makes it clear that they would prefer that Clinton resign and spare the country further turmoil, there could be heavy pressure on senators to demand that he go.
That may have been why Clinton responded so swiftly when Livingston announced his resignation. Almost immediately, the president sent his press secretary, Joe Lockhart, out to tell reporters that Clinton wished Livingston would reconsider.
Seeking prompt resolution
But with Senate action at least weeks away, time may be Clinton's biggest enemy.
The president and his defenders are pushing for a speedy resolution in the Senate. Democrats acknowledge that a trial could tie up the Senate for months and could effectively paralyze the government.
The Republican leader of the Senate, Trent Lott, under pressure from conservatives in his own party, has said that there must be a trial. That could take anywhere from a few days to several weeks, he has said, and might not begin until late winter.
After he was impeached, Clinton stressed that wants the matter resolved in a "prompt manner" and indicated that he would be open to a compromise that is "reasonable, bipartisan and proportionate." The president has indicated he would embrace a formal resolution of rebuke.
Acutely sensitive to how history will view his presidency, Clinton has made no direct comment yet on how he felt when he became the first chief executive in 130 years to be impeached.
Instead, it was left to Gore, who termed yesterday "the saddest day I have seen" in Washington, to address that point -- and to buck up his boss in the process.
History will regard Clinton "as one of our greatest presidents," Gore said. "The verdict of history will undo the unworthy judgment rendered" by a highly partisan Congress.
But the nightmare scenario at the White House is that Clinton might be forced to enter the history books alongside the last president who faced an impeachment threat. In 1974, after articles of impeachment were approved by a House committee, Richard M. Nixon resigned rather than be impeached by the full House and was replaced by his vice president, Gerald Ford.
"Our long national nightmare is over," Ford said after taking the oath of office.
As a battered and exhausted capital begins Christmas week with an impeached president and a leaderless House of Representatives, the nation's latest ordeal may have barely begun.
Pub Date: 12/20/98