Sunday, December 20, 1998, was a good day for headlines. The Boston Sunday Globe bannered “Clinton is Impeached.” The New York Times, perhaps moved by the president’s well-known perplexity with the copulative verb, shortened this to “Clinton Impeached,” but added a coast-to-coast subhead: “He Faces Senate Trial, 2D in History; Vows To Do His Job Till Term’s ‘Last Hour.’” (He did just that, pardoning a passel of crooks, including the world-class swindler Marc Rich then on the lam in Switzerland, but let me not wander…) If December 20, 1998, had heart-warming headlines, it had even better photographs.
I am thinking of one photo in particular. We are in the Oval Office. The president stands in the center — head bowed, eyes closed (or at least downcast), Hillary with her hand linked on his arm. She too has her head tilted down and her eyes closed. If you cropped the picture, you might think they are praying together. Oddly, that’s exactly what the New York Times did. It is an image suggesting a chastened Bill Clinton. But the Boston Sunday Globe printed the same picture un-cropped, and the effect is subtly different. For one thing, in the Globe’s version we see Al Gore standing just behind Bill’s shoulder. Gore is looking directly at the camera, tight-lipped with an expression that combines fear and consternation.
Though he is off to the side, it is Gore, not Bill and Hillary, who dominates this image. He is caught in the moment, and looks like he feels the maddening situation in which he finds himself. He has to stand (in this case literally) behind the President, though doing so inevitably embeds him further in the tawdriness of all things Clinton. His look somehow cancels the impression that Bill and Hillary are praying. Instead they look like they are posing in a dumb show of brave contrition.
Even a staged image can offer unexpected felicities, and this photo offers that too. Bill’s shadow falls on Hillary, bisecting her face with a steep arc of darkness, like a graph of the decline of her idealism from her days as a student radical at Wellesley to this moment of bravely yoking herself to Monica Lewinsky’s playmate. She is here, half-eclipsed and all grim.
Well, it is just a picture. I don’t know how many newspapers ran it, but I saved the front pages of the Times and the Globe and, in a mad moment, framed them. Each year about this time I take them out, and each year the story they tell just gets richer and richer. Who would have thought that the wooden Al Gore, staring out from this picture in sullen apprehension, would re-make himself as the demiurge of an international hysteria? Stiff-necked, slow of speech, but steadfast in his conceits and seething with smothered resentments, he was long a kernel. When he at last exploded, he turned out to be movie popcorn soon to be drenched with the warm butter of a Nobel Prize.
The press often plays up Gore’s environmental heroism as his towering answer to George W. Bush. Surely that’s part of it, but the photograph of him in the Oval Office on December 19, 1998 is pretty compelling evidence that Al has an even greater stake in saying of the others in that picture, “I’m not one of them.” Will environmentalist-cult status and a Nobel Prize release him from the agony of this photograph? No, there he is, and will be forever, tethered to the smarter, sexier, ruthless immoralist-in-chief, like an ornament on his keychain.
Bill is stumping for Hillary these days, trying to pull her campaign back from its sudden decline in popularity. He spends much of his time talking about the glory days of his presidency — the grandeur that was him — which seems inevitably to evoke the humiliation that was hers. Hillary ran successfully for the Senate by making it seem she was redeeming herself from humiliation, but it seems hard to imagine that she can keep on getting redeemed all the way to the White House. To go getting redeemed anew year after year, month after month, day after day would require the talents of Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry. I’ve seen Elmer Gantry, and Hillary is no Elmer Gantry. (She’s no Sister Sharon either.)
For a while, I thought I was alone in making a private holiday out of December 19. I am still not sure I explain why the Clinton impeachment resonates so strongly with me, but I now discover that I’m not alone. Here in Princeton, there is an annual gathering of men and women who keep the festival, which culminates at 1:22 PM, the moment when the House of Representatives voted 228 to 206 to approve the first article of impeachment. It isn’t a somber affair and no one takes it too seriously. I doubt that anyone involved would have wanted to see Al Gore succeed a Bill Clinton found guilty by the U.S. Senate. But the impeachment itself felt liberating. It delivered us from the oppressive idea that Bill Clinton and his pals could engage in any kind of scabrous conduct they pleased without an ounce of consequence. The impeachment was a trumpet blast of consequence. It announced that a good number of Americans still cared about the personal probity of the president and the moral well-being of the nation.
Impeaching the president is no frivolity and the grown-up attitude toward it was sadness that it had become necessary. Not far from that sadness, however, was a throb of gratitude to the House Republicans and the pleasure of knowing that, come what may at the trial, the Clinton era would be permanently sealed by public acknowledgement of Bill Clinton’s lowlife behavior and dishonesty. Not all conservatives approved the impeachment at the time, and its consequences are surely mixed.
The chain of political cause and effect never stops. A good portion of the Left’s hatred of Bush was laid in place on December 19, 1998. A generation that had fervently intoned the idea that “the personal is political” took umbrage when various women of Bill Clinton’s acquaintance made their personal experiences with him public. A law that he had promulgated that expanded the grounds for claiming sexual harassment, became an instrument of his own legal embarrassment. Entangling people in their own conceits breeds consternation and Clinton’s impeachment planted the seed for an Angry Postmodern Left.
Looking back at that photograph, we can see the resentments taking deep form in those tight-lipped shadows and averted eyes. The photo in this sense is a prophecy of The Daily Kos, the hate blogs, the Dean Scream, and the Moveon.org politics of personal derangement. But the mood now seems to be shifting again. The sun of Barack is shining over Iowa and the grimacing clouds of the Angry Left appear to be losing strength. But before we decide that deep down we all like and respect each other, let’s raise our annual toast to the brave House Republicans of 1998 who, in a moment of inspiration, said, “Enough is enough,” and impeached America’s most lubricious president.
– Peter Wood is author of A Bee in the Mouth.