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"Write out of love, write out of instinct, write out of reason. But always for money."
Louis Untermeyer

The Breach: Inside the Impeachment and Trial of William Jefferson Clinton

By Peter Baker
A Berkley Book, 472 pp, 2000

This is a nitty-gritty, behind-the-scenes look at Congress and the White House during the House impeachment and Senate trial. It's a fascinating display of the way the major parties practice politics. Contrary to most appearances, Republicans and Democrats don't hate each other, at an institutional level. And rarely do their public words and utterances match their private beliefs and actions.

Peter Baker covered the White House for the Washington Post from 1996 to 1999, so he witnessed many of the events he describes. He's talked to the players, obtained private memos and other documents, and analyzed government transcripts of the major proceedings. This book is reporting at its finest - rarely does Baker write what he thinks or how he feels about his subject matter.

The book opens on the eve of the impeachment vote in the House of Representatives. Bob Livingston is the designated Speaker, following the disappointing (for Republicans) 1998 elections that forced Newt Gingrich to resign. Livingston is having second thoughts about impeachment, and considers allowing a censure vote. But an aide talks him out of it. 

This isn't an easy vote for Livingston, because he reveres the institutional traditions of government, and cannot imagine any president being impeached. It horrifies him, though he is convinced it is the right thing to do. And, if he pushed for censure, he could lose the support of conservative Republicans in his Speaker bid. Can't risk that. The problem is, his Speakership may already be doomed because he heard from a White House lobbyist ally that Larry Flynt found a woman who claimed she and Livingston had an affair, but if Livingston dropped impeachment and backed censure, Flynt wouldn't publish the story in his porn rag Hustler. So what to do?

Henry Hyde faced similar tough decisions a month before, when the impeachment inquiry was conducted by the committee he chaired. The Democrats, which talked of cooperation while practicing none of it, pushed for their own impeachment inquiry plan, which was too limited for Republicans. But if Hyde rejected the Dems' plan and pushed his own, he'd look like a rabid partisan, and he didn't want that. For impeachment to be legitimate, it had to be bipartisan. So what to do?

Dick Gephardt faced a tough choice. He hated what Clinton did and at one point wondered if he and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle would have to go to the White House and tell Clinton to resign. But too many Democrats in his caucus were supportive of Clinton, not because they necessarily loved him, they just didn't want Republicans to impeach a Democratic president. Other Democrats, more moderate and conservative ones, were actually leaning toward voting for impeachment. Somehow, Gephardt had to keep both sides happy and hold his caucus together. So what to do?

Once impeachment passed and hit the Senate, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Daschle faced more problems. They wanted to work together to avoid partisanship, yet had to keep their people happy. If the rank-and-file in both parties though their leaders were caving to the other, they'd revolt and fracture the Senate. But they had to hold a trial and come up with some process that everyone could live with. And they had other worries. Daschle had to keep the White House happy and Lott had to keep the House managers happy. Inevitably, what senators liked the Clinton team or managers didn't. So what to do?

Read the book to find out. I won't give it away here, but it may surprise you. What you've heard about the Clinton impeachment may not be true.

I'll give you one example. You may recall that Democrats constantly criticized Republicans for acting partisan and ramming Republican proposals down Democratic throats. Dems consistently implored Republicans to be more bipartisan. 

You shouldn't have believed them. They didn't mean it. The truth was, Republicans in both the House and Senate bent over backwards to accommodate the Dems, and the Dems repaid them by drudging up proposals they knew Republicans couldn't accept and then complaining about Republican partisanship. The Dems did this repeatedly. Gephardt called it winning by losing. Sure, the Dems didn't have the votes to stop anything, but by concocting phony partisanship issues, they could label the whole process partisan and therefore illegitimate. It was smart politics, and they won the public relations battle, but it was also fundamentally dishonest. 

So, if you like down and dirty political battles, and want a glimpse of the inner workings of the politicians that you vote for and support, read the book. You'll learn a lot. I can't promise that you'll like what you learn.

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