''... the first elected president to be impeached...'

Aftermath Of Impeachment

February 14, 1999

When the textbooks of tomorrow are written, the part about Bill Clinton will almost certainly open with that phrase. His legacy will revolve around the tawdry affair with a young White House intern that led him to become only the second president ever tried for impeachable offenses.

But what has been the impact of the Clinton scandal on the rest of us? Have the workings of government been affected? What about the press? The law? The American workplace?

As events that became a part of our national consciousness start to recede into memory, members of The Sun's Washington bureau take a look at what's left behind and what has changed, now that the impeachment trial is over.

The presidency

He demeaned the presidency. He dishonored his office. He brought shame to it. Those phrases - and worse - were hurled at President Clinton on the Senate floor last week.

But has the impeachment of the president, only the second in history, inflicted lasting damage? According to presidential historians and political scientists, the biggest harm may have been the way that the Clinton scandal has diminished the public's trust in government.

``One of the problems in judging impact is whether this has been about the presidency or about Bill Clinton as president. I think it is more the latter,'' says Charles O. Jones, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Wisconsin. ``If so, then there need not be lasting effects.''

Robert Dallek, a Boston University historian whose subjects have included Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, agrees that any fallout from impeachment is likely to revolve around the more personal aspects of the presidency, rather than the powers of the office.

``There is probably going to be a reaction against all this machismo business,'' he predicts, referring to the sexual adventurism of Clinton and modern predecessors such as President John F. Kennedy.

Any changes are likely to be far different from the limitations imposed on the ``imperial presidency'' in the Watergate era.

During the year leading to Richard M. Nixon's resignation in 1974, Congress passed the War Powers Act to restrict the president's ability to commit U.S. military forces without congressional approval.

After Nixon, presidential papers became the property of the federal government; campaign contributions and spending were strictly limited in presidential elections (though inventive politicians found gaping loopholes); and the independent counsel's office was created, establishing, in effect, an investigative authority whose only purpose was to probe the president and senior members of his government.

The Clinton impeachment is not expected to generate new curbs on presidential power. If the independent counsel statute is scrapped, as some expect, it would result in fewer limitations on future presidents.

There has been another less noticeable, though profoundly corrosive, consequence of the Clinton scandal: Trust in government, which had started to move up in the mid-1990s, after a long period of decline, took a sharp drop over the past year.

``The prevailing wisdom is that impeachment hasn't changed the presidency at all,'' says Paul C. Light, director of the Center for Public Service at the Brookings Institution. ``The government is continuing to function. But there is evidence of a fairly significant decline in public confidence in government.''

In 1997, just before the world learned the name Monica Lewinsky, 38 percent of Americans said that government could be trusted to do the right thing all or most of the time. Last month, that figure had been cut in half - to just 19 percent - according to a national survey by the Center on Policy Attitudes, an independent group of social science researchers.

It was during the last presidential scandal - the Iran-contra affair of the 1980s - that discontent with government began to increase noticeably. And it would take almost a decade after that before public trust started to rebound.

Paul West

Campaign 2000

As the Senate trial wound down, one Republican offered an unusually candid - and cutting - assessment of his party's plight.

``The GOP is standing in quicksand,'' Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado told a reporter. Voters ``aren't going to compartmentalize [impeachment]. This has implications for the year 2000.''

Polls say the same thing. A majority of Americans think Republicans will be punished politically for trying to drive Bill Clinton from office. Clinton is described as bent on revenge - and determined to engineer the defeat of Republican representatives who pressed the case against him.

But the next national election is 21 months away. And political consultants in both parties believe that is plenty of time for impeachment to vanish as an issue - even if Clinton's ardent defenders try to make it one.

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