• U.S.

Sighs and Whimpers

4 minute read
Margaret Carlson

Over his long, tumultuous career, Bill Clinton has shown himself to be a man who can live without friends but not without enemies. He thrives in a storm, not in sunshine. Before Ken Starr, Clinton stood isolated from Democrats, having triangulated and compromised himself out of their good graces. That was fine when Starr was just investigating a moldy land deal. But when he turned his high horse onto the low road of presidential sex, Clinton knew this was different. For the first time, he needed congressional Democrats more than they needed him. And Democrats, fearing the right wing might really be gaining ground, answered his call. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship that peaked last Friday, when all 45 Senate Democrats stood by their man.

But what will happen now that the danger has passed? Will Clinton drop his new friends, put Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle on hold while he speed-dials Trent Lott to cut deals to build the legacy he craves? A former confidant remarked, “He’s the kind of guy who’s there for you when he needs you.”

When Clinton spoke briefly in the Rose Garden after the vote, he looked, finally, grief stricken and empty, like a mourner left alone with the empty Jell-O molds and casserole dishes after the funeral. The adrenaline was gone, and the friends dispersed. His wife, welded to his side through most of the bitter fight against Starr, was pointedly absent in its Rose Garden aftermath. Her refusal to shut the door on a run for the Senate in New York could almost be taken as an announcement that she is open to a de facto separation, a psychological divorce. Bruce Lindsey, the President’s constant companion and consigliere, was missing Friday as well, having gone off to have lunch with fellow aides Greg Craig and Cheryl Mills rather than return for the President’s statement. Last month Lindsey didn’t even show up to fill his customary seat next to Clinton at the President’s annual Super Bowl party at Camp David. Like the first, second and third teams of aides, the fourth, including Paul Begala, is leaving the field.

Surely 1999 won’t be a repeat of 1998–Who could survive it?–but it could be a throwback to 1997, when Clinton’s broken leg matched his busted-up spirit. Dreams of universal health care had been downsized to an extra day in the hospital for major surgery. The state attorneys general, not Clinton, were leading the war on tobacco. His heart wasn’t in campaign-finance reform. He was reduced to bite-size governing and musing about his relevance.

Starr got his juices going then, but what enemy will rouse him now? In rising up to foil his foes, taking to the ramparts when most of us would take to our beds, Clinton has left behind him the political corpses of Al D’Amato, Bob Livingston and Newt Gingrich and the wounded reputations of Starr, Henry Hyde and their colleagues. Who will replace them? Last Wednesday night, at a reception for Senator John McCain, Senator Phil Gramm, a scathing Clinton critic, eating an overflowing plate of red meat, looked as if he might serve as the new nemesis. Gramm was going on about how it was his constitutional duty (sound familiar?) to block censure (remember censure?), and would filibuster if need be until the last dog died. On Friday, when Gramm rose to block the measure, it was more with a whimper than a bang. No one much cared. Clinton’s enemies are going to have to do better than that if he’s to thrive.

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