National drama moves forward Congress officially gets into the act with receipt of Starr report

September 10, 1998|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The images were as mundane as they were historic: white-shirted Capitol policemen lifting cardboard cartons out of the independent counsel's Chrysler vans and loading them into their own navy Suburbans.

That brief businesslike scene, carried out at the foot of the Capitol steps yesterday afternoon, marked the formal transfer of Kenneth W. Starr's case against President Clinton to Congress.

With it, America's long-running national psychodrama entered a new and wholly unpredictable phase.

For the first time, the House must deal with documentary evidence of possible presidential crimes, gathered by an independent prosecutor under the authority of the post-Watergate law that created his office. For what would be only the third time in the nation's history, presidential impeachment proceedings are a very real possibility.

At this point, no one can script the outcome. Censure, resignation or impeachment are options. While Congress alone can act on Starr's report, the verdict, as analysts and historians have noted, will ultimately be rendered by the American people.

"I don't think anybody's expectations are worth a damn at this point," said pollster Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center, who just completed a national survey. "We've all been surprised by how the public has or has not reacted. I don't know what to expect."

What the polling veteran found, however, is that -- despite embarrassing revelations about the president's sexual relationship with a 21-year-old intern and his admission that he lied to the country about it -- the public's attitudes appear to have remained remarkably stable. The poll that Kohut will release later this week will show that a solid majority of Americans disapprove of Clinton personally but still don't want him to be removed from office.

"People are sticking to their guns," he said. "They don't want him to go."

That may change, as Starr's findings -- involving obstruction of justice and abuse of power, along with explicit sexual descriptions -- become public. With congressional elections less than two months away, and Democrats increasingly worried about bigger-than-expected losses, Clinton finds himself with little room for error as he tries to dig out of the worst crisis of his career.

At a private White House breakfast, the president delivered an emotional apology that drew a sympathetic response from the ** House Democratic leaders gathered around him. But Clinton's silence on the question that preoccupies many in Washington -- whether Starr's report contains damaging new revelations -- caused new worries for some.

"Mr. President," said Rep. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, "there can be no more surprises." Clinton nodded but said

nothing, the Associated Press reported.

Later in the day, Clinton took his contrition tour to Florida. And in contrast to his flat performance at an event in Maryland on Tuesday, Clinton seemed reinvigorated, drawing strength from the enthusiastic greeting he received.

It is already a cliche to say that Clinton has embarked on the toughest campaign of his life -- the one to hang on to his job for the final two-plus years of his term. But the president does seem to be reverting to the comeback style that enabled him to surmount personal allegations in the 1992 campaign, including marital infidelity and draft-dodging, that would have finished off a lesser politician.

"I'm determined to redeem the trust of people who were with me in 1991," he told Democrats in Orlando, "when nobody but my mother and my wife thought I had a chance to be elected."

Clinton said that an admiring schoolboy shook his hand yesterday and said: "Mr. President, I want to grow up to be president. I want to be a president like you."

He "reminded me a lot of myself when I was that young," said Clinton, whose ambitions are preserved in the famous photo of teen-aged Bill clasping President John F. Kennedy's hand.

Clinton went on to say that "I'll never forget that little boy." To some, those words were an echo of candidate Clinton, who told the voters of New Hampshire in his darkest moments of the '92 campaign that he would never forget what they had done to keep his presidential chances alive.

To many others, however, the day's events suggested a very different historical parallel.

"We seem to be living history over again," said Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, the senior Democrat in the Senate. "Time seems to be turning backward in its flight. And many of the mistakes that President Nixon made are being made all over again."

Patrick J. Buchanan, who was a young Nixon White House aide, predicted "a very sad ending" for Clinton.

Fred Greenstein, a Princeton University political scientist, described Clinton as "a somewhat seamier version of Nixon" and wondered whether Clinton's fellow Democrats would come to his defense one more time.

"He's sawed off so many limbs that people have gone out on for him," the professor noted.

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