Has The Cookie Crumbled
For Bill Clinton?
By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in Washington
IF in doubt, it is always wisest to assume that Bill Clinton will confound his enemies. But this time there is very little doubt. The whole of political Washington now knows that the game is almost up.
'It looks like the end of the road. Clinton could be facing 10 or more counts of criminal conduct' The public at large - plump, prosperous, disengaged and slow to anger - is a long way behind the curve. President Clinton's job approval ratings are still holding above 65 per cent, kept aloft by the Dow Jones Index and the asset bubble of the Roaring Nineties. But this is an anomaly that cannot persist for long. On trust and honesty his ratings have already fallen through the floor. A Washington Post-ABC News poll had him down to the Nixonian level of 19 per cent on "character".
There has been a tectonic change in the political landscape after his admission that he toyed with the American people for seven months, stonewalling with implausible claims of executive and attorney-client privilege.
Returning after a year in Britain, I am dumbfounded by the insurgent mood of the Washington media. Indeed, it is downright putschist. Former cheerleaders for the Clinton White House are on the television every night fulminating against the President, cursing him with the fury of the betrayed.
The bureau chiefs for the great metropolitan newspapers and political weeklies shake their heads wearily at suggestions that Mr Clinton can somehow mount a defence against perjury by quibbling over the nature of sex acts, whether performed with or without cigars. As for the idea of a fresh Oval Office address to the nation, a new improved apology to show that he is genuinely sorry this time, they smile knowingly at the naivity of such an absurd gambit. Mr Clinton's problems have moved beyond public relations.
US News & World Report, which slept through the first five-and-a-half years of the Clinton presidency, is reporting this week that Congress will soon receive a bombshell from the independent counsel, Kenneth Starr. The Starr report will conclude that the President "suborned perjury and obstructed justice". It will "echo the language of the Watergate era - abuse of power and lack of fitness for office".
Newsweek, owned by the Queen Bee of the Beltway Democratic establishment, the Washington Post proprietor Katharine Graham, says much the same. It reports that Mr Clinton's testimony before the grand jury last week "further entangled him in a web of lies".
The magazine implies that the President's secretary, Betty Currie, has exposed him to likely impeachment proceedings by revealing a conspiracy to cover up the affair with Monica Lewinsky. For good measure, it adds that the descriptions of Mr Clinton's sexual proclivities in the Starr report will make people "want to throw up".
This looks like the end of the road. Reporters for the elite media are being taken aside by those in the know - the FBI, the Starr investigation, the arbiters of power at the Metropolitan Club - and warned that President Clinton could be facing 10, 12 or more counts of criminal conduct, and that is on the Lewinsky matter alone.
The few Democrats who dare to appear on television to defend the White House are already hedging their bets. If the reports are true, they admit, the President will almost certainly have to think of alternative employment. Their words maintain that there is still doubt about the facts, but their body language says otherwise.
Loyalty is weak. The Clinton administration, after all, once played a cynical game of "triangulation" to distance itself from the Democrats' Leftish rump in Congress. The Democratic leadership in the House, in turn, regards him as an opportunist, a man without ideology who sold out to the corporate lobbies and adopted the balanced-budget agenda of the bond markets.
Increasingly it is a question of political survival for Democrats facing close races in the mid-term elections this November. The party has already lost both the House and the Senate under this president. There is now a fear of a wipeout on the scale of the post-Watergate rout of 1974, when Republicans on Capitol Hill paid the price for Nixon's protracted disgrace.
In private the whispers are getting louder every day. If it were done, they plot and scheme, if the knife were to be plunged before Bill Clinton can do any more damage to the party, 'twere well it were done quickly.
Mr Clinton surely knows he can expect little mercy. Sam Nunn, the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has already delivered the first blow to the head. In an essay in the Washington Post (see external link), he called on Mr Clinton to remember his duty to the American people.
"This will require personal sacrifice and may even require his resignation, but would fulfil the President's most important oath, to preserve and protect our nation," he wrote. In other words: be gone from here, you cad, before we have you tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail.
But has Mr Clinton got the message?