WASHINGTON -- The last time anyone seriously threatened to impeach a president, the political drama produced some heroes in both parties.
But Watergate was serious business and the Monica Lewinsky episode has been both too shabby and too trivial to produce even political winners, let alone heroes. Everyone involved is a loser to one degree or another.
By contrast, 25 years ago there were winners all over the spectrum. Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina, a Democrat, was lauded for his judicious conduct of the Senate investigation. And Republican Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. was similarly praised for distilling the whole case with his famous question: "What did the president know and when did he know it?"
Eliot Richardson, the attorney general, became an instant hero to millions of Americans when he forced President Richard M. Nixon to fire him in the Saturday Night Massacre because he would not agree to remove the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox.
There were winners in the House as well. Rep. Peter Rodino of New Jersey, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, was praised for his fairness. Another Democrat on the committee, Rep. Barbara Jordan of Texas, became a national figure because of her articulate distillation of the case against Nixon. Several Republicans on the committee -- among them Reps. Bill Cohen of Maine, Tom Railsback of Illinois and Caldwell Butler of Virginia -- showed the kind of political courage and independence their constituents prized in the face of intense pressure from the die-hard Nixon backers.
This time everyone loses. Whatever hopes President Clinton still nourishes for a positive legacy are fanciful. He will be remembered inevitably as a president who committed gross behavior and then lied about it. In short, he was guilty of conduct indefensible enough to make him only the second president ever to be impeached. In the political world, he also will be recalled as a president who used his aides and allies in ways that cost them huge legal bills and, in the cases of those who joined in trashing Ms. Lewinsky and Kathleen Willey, their reputations. With Mr. Clinton, loyalty has been a one-way street.
But the opinion polls make it plain that the Republicans who pursued him so relentlessly also are losers. From the moment of their unholy alliance with independent counsel Kenneth Starr, the House Republicans have followed a course the voters have seen as zealous partisanship. In the cases of those who prosecuted the president in the Senate, they also suffered from the widespread judgment they were inept in making their case.
And although some of the Senate Republicans have tried to cut out their own positions, the Republicans as a group have projected an image of partisanship in the eyes of most of their constituents.
On the face of it, the polls would suggest that the Republicans are in such bad odor because of their handling of the situation that the Democrats are well positioned to make gains in the 2000 election.
In the 1974 midterm election and the 1976 presidential election, Democrats won victories that could be traced easily to the reaction against Nixon and Watergate.
This time, however, such an advantage is probably illusory. By 2000, voters will have other things to capture their attention and guide their decisions.
Vice President Al Gore is a loser here, too, because he'll forever be associated with an era voters would like to forget.
Great crises in American history usually produce memorable figures. But this has been a penny-ante crisis, caused by the self-indulgence of the president and seized upon by moralists with their own political agendas. Rather than memorable figures, it has produced laughingstocks for late-night television shows.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.
Pub Date: 2/12/99