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Friday, February 12, 1999 Published at 17:04 GMT

Analysis: What saved Bill Clinton?

By Washington Correspondent Tom Carver

Let's not forget who started this. It was not Bill Clinton or Monica Lewinsky or even Kenneth Starr.

The trial of the president
It was an obscure Philadelphia lawyer called Jerome M Marcus. On 8 January 1998 he placed a call to the Office of Independent Counsel alerting Kenneth Starr and his drones to the existence of the Linda Tripp tapes and Monica Lewinsky for the first time.

Since 1994 Kenneth Starr had been trying to find Bill Clinton guilty of something.

He'd unpicked the Whitewater fiasco, questioned people about Vince Foster's suicide, delved into Hillary Clinton's relations with her travel office staff, all without success.

[ image: Tom Carver]
Tom Carver
True, none of it looked very edifying, but he could find nothing to prove that Bill Clinton had actually broken the law. And yet, like a true zealot, Mr Starr was convinced that it was only a matter of time.

Then along came Jerome Marcus, according to the New York Times part of a small group of lawyers who'd been quietly backing the Paula Jones civil lawsuit against the president.

For the Republicans and the independent counsel, Monica Lewinsky seemed like a lifeline. She offered tantalising tales of secret trysts inside that holy of holies, the Oval Office, between the most powerful man in the land and a vulnerable trainee.

There was proof of the affair in the form of gifts and emails. And best of all, there were tape recordings and strong suggestions of a cover-up, evoking the possibility of another Watergate.

[ image:  ]
Republicans have always smarted from the memory of Watergate. For 24 years, the conservative base has tried to wash out the stain with the strong bleach of the moral majority whilst at the same time on the look-out for any opportunity to shift the slur onto the Democrats.

When Bill Clinton emerged onto the national scene in 1992, they knew he would be an easy target. Here was an undisciplined baby-boomer who had smoked pot, dodged the draft, been repeatedly unfaithful and wouldn't go down on his knees and ask anyone for forgiveness.

Monica Lewinsky seemed to prove that Bill Clinton was both morally and politically corrupt.

Starr's miscalculation

[ image: Kenneth Starr being sworn in for impeachment hearings: What now lies in store?]
Kenneth Starr being sworn in for impeachment hearings: What now lies in store?
What sparked Kenneth Starr's interest was not the sex (though, as we now know, he took more than a passing interest in the semen stains and thongs) but the suggestion that people high up in the White House had tried to find Monica a job in return for her agreeing to lie about the affair.

But the Republicans and Kenneth Starr badly miscalculated. In their eagerness to bring down the president, they never stopped to think whether the charges could be proved beyond reasonable doubt.

[ image:  ]
Hard-liners in the Republican Party drove the Lewinsky affair through the House of Representatives and on into the Senate. They ignored the opinion polls and the fact that Bill Clinton was the first Democrat president to be re-elected since Franklin Roosevelt. Moderates within the party became too frightened of the conservative base to demur, but the American people refused to be so easily cowed.

And so we had the bizarre spectacle of the House of Representatives impeaching a president with the approval ratings of a rock star.

The public will catch up, they kept saying. But it wasn't the public that needed to catch up with reality.

Different from Nixon

Of course, it could easily have turned out differently. Instead of hinting, Bill Clinton could have made the job offer a much more blatant quid pro quo. Nixon probably would have done. But Bill Clinton was too good a lawyer.

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Unlike Nixon and Haldemann, he was careful to make sure that no one overheard his conversations with Vernon Jordan. Instead of telling Monica to lie, he simply reminded her of their 'cover stories'.

And so for most Americans, the only thing Monica Lewinsky had in common with Watergate was her flat in the Watergate complex. To the public, this scandal never amounted to more than a kiss'n'tell story that belonged more to the Jay Leno Show than on the floor of the Senate.

End of the 'Republican revolution'

Bill Clinton's acquittal marks the end of the Republican Revolution which swept Newt Gingrich and his companions into Congress in 1994.

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The Contract with America has been forgotten. Newt Gingrich has gone, and so has Bob Livingston, unable to dislodge Bill Clinton from the affections of millions of Americans. Even Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition told his fellow conservatives to pack up and go home after Bill Clinton's State of the Union speech.

Americans have made it clear they've had enough zealotry and tub-thumping. They have shown that this is no longer the land of Puritans, if indeed it ever was.

The persecutor, Kenneth Starr, and not the persecuted is the one with the low approval rating.

In this post-cold war age, they want the Politician of Small Things and that is exactly what Bill Clinton offers: small initiatives free of dogma.

The new Republican breed can already be seen in the form of republican governors like George Bush jnr and Frank Keating. They have learnt from Clinton to pick the policies which please the masses rather than the party line.

What next for Slick Willy?

In this Through the Looking Glass World in which the Lewinsky scandal has ended up devouring the reputations of Republicans rather than Democrats, it's quite likely that now it is over, the president's popularity will actually decline. Over the past year, he has benefited from the underdog sympathy vote. But he now reverts from being the "president under fire" to plain old Slick Willy.

He will use what remains of his presidency to buy posterity and in doing so he may well go too far. Bill Clinton is a man of excess.

His biographer David Maraniss has often pointed out that he has had his greatest successes when everyone expected him to fail and failed just when he looked assured of success.

Despite the fact that Joe Lockhart, the white house spokesman has promised a 'gloat-free zone', Bill Clinton may not be able to resist.

There is much speculation that this scandal will somehow insulate presidents against future invasions of privacy. But I don't believe it.

[ image:  ]
Far from feeling contrite, there is a sense of vindication in the media. You see, he did lie. We told you so. Last week, George Bush junior was asked directly by a TV reporter, "have you ever used drugs? Marijuana? Cocaine?" George Bush replied: "I'm not going to talk about what I did as a child."

A loss for the media

More worryingly, the news agenda is increasingly driven by the demands of the 24-hour channels and what they want above all else is a story that will run and run, providing a staple fare for months on end.

Innuendo and argument have pushed out straight reporting. The loss is the media's as Americans seem adept at tuning it all out.

Everyone is praising the wisdom of the Founding Fathers for devising a failsafe measure that prevented the president from being politically lynched by the other party.

But it was the Founding Fathers who invented a constitution in which the power of the executive was vested in one person with all his or her human failings. From now on, the president's human shortcomings will always be a part of American democracy.

Bill Clinton's survival may give future presidents the determination to stonewall and prevaricate but they had better make sure they are popular.

Make no mistake, what saved Bill Clinton was not his innocence or the constitution but the American people who chose to stay away from his execution.

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