Making history turned out to be easy. Making sense, however, was quite a different matter. In the end, the historic impeachment of President Clinton had none of the epic quality that might have been expected. There were no high crimes and misdemeanours. There was no air of grim dignity, just a virtually unprecedented display of partisan venom.
There was none of the high-minded consensus that everyone thought would be needed before such a momentous step was taken. There was just the inglorious counting of heads, a party in power using its majority to get its way regardless of reason, prudence or even the long-term interests of the Republicans themselves.
If the impeachment vote was the inevitable consequence of the Republicans' rhetoric, however, everything else about the whole saga was wildly improbable. It seemed unthinkable that Bill Clinton, knowing that his enemies were watching his sex life for excuses to bring him down, should have walked so stupidly into the trap. And once he did, it seemed that he brought madness into fashion. Thereafter, almost everything about the story was marked by extraordinary foolishness.
In the first place, there was no good reason for the independent counsel Kenneth Starr to be allowed to investigate Clinton's sexual behaviour or to fuse his own public inquiry with Paula Jones's private civil suit. Starr was, by the end of 1997, facing humiliation. He had spent almost $30 million investigating the Whitewater property scandal in Arkansas, the misuse of FBI files by Clinton aides, the upheavals at the White House travel office, and the suicide of Clinton's friend Vince Foster. He had found, as subsequently became clear, nothing that really touched the Clintons.
It is easy then to understand why Starr seized so enthusiastically on Linda Tripp's tapes of conversations with the president's lover, Monica Lewinsky. They were his last chance at redemption. What is amazing, though, is that the attorney general Janet Reno allowed Starr to take up the case.
The legal excuse was that Clinton and his friend Vernon Jordan had been involved in drawing up "talking points" for Linda Tripp - evidence she was to give if she was questioned by Paula Jones's lawyers. This would indeed have been a serious, even an impeachable, crime. But it never happened. The talking points were completely spurious. They were drawn up, not by Clinton or Jordan, but by Linda Tripp herself. Why this was not established before Starr's inquisition was allowed to go ahead is simply inexplicable.
No less strange is the fact that no one looked too closely at the primary evidence, Linda Tripp's tapes. Tripp's story, repeated under oath, was that she made all of the recordings herself on her own voice-activated recorder. When they were eventually analysed by the FBI Audio Signal Analysis Unit, it became apparent that this was untrue. More than half the tapes were "not consistent with being recorded on the Radio Shack CTR107 tape recorder Ms Tripp says she used to record the original tapes." That strongly implies that Hillary Clinton's allegations of a right-wing conspiracy against her husband were the products not just of paranoia and desperation, but of well grounded suspicions.
Lucianne Goldberg, the literary agent who persuaded Linda Tripp to record the tapes is, moreover, a veteran of conservative dirty tricks campaigns. She impersonated a reporter in order to spy on George McGovern's Democratic presidential campaign for the Nixon White House. In 1988 she was heavily involved with a lurid book on Chappaquiddick, aimed at destroying Teddy Kennedy's bid for the presidency. More recently she has been part of the large, batty family of conspiracy theorists who insist, against all the available evidence, that Vince Foster was murdered - the implication being, of course, that the murder was commissioned by the Clintons.
Most bizarre of all, however, was the way the Republican Party allowed its hatred of Clinton and its excitement at the prospect of humiliating him to override any rational analysis of its own long-term interests. Two things were clear right from the start of the scandal in January.
One was that, if Clinton were removed from office, the main effect would be to allow Al Gore to run for election in the year 2000 as the incumbent president, increasing the Democrats' chances of holding on to the office. And the other was that while most Americans were angry at Bill Clinton, they were scared of Kenneth Starr.
Americans on the whole do really believe that they live in the home of the brave and the land of the free. Getting a middle-aged woman to secretly tape private conversations with her young and vulnerable "friend" didn't seem especially brave. Hauling citizens in off the street and threatening them with decades in prison unless they told Starr what he had already decided was the truth didn't seem particularly free. For intelligent conservatives, identifying their cause with an arrogant, unaccountable and self-righteous sex inquisitor was a disaster.
Even the more astute leaders of the hard right, like the notably restrained Newt Gingrich, seemed to understand this. They knew that very few of them (not Gingrich, not his would-be successor as Speaker, Bob Livingston) could pass a test of sexual propriety. They knew that the prospect of merciless examination of one's private life would make the presidency itself a poisoned chalice, and that their own best prospect for 2000, the Texas governor George Bush jnr, was already expressing doubts about whether he could subject his family to it. And they knew, certainly after their dreadful showing in the November midterm elections, that most Americans wanted Clinton to be given a rap on the knuckles and for everyone to get back to the real business of government.
But they couldn't stop. An early hint of the reasons why the Republicans could not content themselves with a devastating but carefully limited bombing raid on the White House and had to go for all-out war, came in a New Yorker interview with Lucianne Goldberg.
She explained that her client Linda Tripp was motivated by disgust at the manners of the Clintons, whom she saw as Southern white trash invading her White House domain and disturbing its neatness: "The carpets were getting dirty. People were eating at their desks. The White House was the most glamorous thing that had ever happened to Linda, and then she sees this mob come in, in sandals . . . she sees (Clinton aide) George Stephanopolous slopping peanut butter on crackers, with his feet on the desk and his dirty hair."
Demented as this kind of response may be, it suggests the real core of the issue, the one genuinely epic force that is at work in the whole business. The last time a president was impeached, it was as a continuation by other means of the American Civil War of the 1860s. This time, Clinton's impeachment is a continuation by other means of the American Civil War of the 1960s.
This conflict is a culture war, fought between liberals and conservatives. What the impeachment has revealed is not merely that the tensions of the 1960s are still alive, but that they go far deeper than anyone quite realised.
Looking at the polls which have consistently shown that over 60 per cent of Americans continue to approve of Clinton's conduct of the presidency, it is easy to miss the significance of the other 40 per cent.
At the core of this large minority, there is that very substantial section of the American population whose conservatism is more religious than economic. It sees itself as being engaged in a holy war. It believes that the righteous have a right to rule. It sees Clinton as the embodiment of everything that is wrong with the 1960s generation - evasive, permissive, demand-fed and dirty, in favour of abortion and against guns. It is willing to sacrifice a great deal - popularity, national unity, the separation of powers, even the Republican Party itself - in order to advance its cause.
The leadership of the Republican Party used to think that it could exploit and control this hard core of the religious right.
Groups like the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority would raise funds for the party. They would provide the foot soldiers House domain and disturbing its neatness: "The carpets were getting dirty. People for election campaigns. They would be appeased by a few clauses in the party platform, promises that would be impossible to keep.
But not any more. The conservatives were so enraged by the failure of George Bush as president and of Newt Gingrich as speaker to deliver on their promises, that they are seriously considering an independent bid for the presidency in 2000, running against both Republicans and Democrats. They don't care about the future of the party. They are not interested in the kind of deal-making and compromising that greases the machinery of government. They want all-out victory and if the Republicans can't deliver it, they will look elsewhere.
The Republicans know this and are terrified. They are caught between the rock of alienating their activists on the religious right and the hard place of exasperating the majority of American voters. Whatever they do now, they will suffer for it.
Already, they are discovering that sex is not the only illicit pleasure that has to be paid for. The pleasure of humiliating the president carries, for the Republicans, the terrible cost of knowing that even as they drag him down, Bill Clinton is doing them untold damage.
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