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Determining Whether President Clinton Has Committed an Impeachable Offense

Constitutional lawyer Laurence Tribe is a Tyler Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School. He'll discuss the release of the videos of Clinton's testimony before the grand jury.


Other segments from the episode on September 22, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 22, 1998: Interview with Bob Dole; Interview with Laurence Tribe; Interview with Joseph Ellis.


Date: SEPTEMBER 22, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 092201np.217
Head: Dole on Politics, Humor & Clinton
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Now that the video of the president's grand jury testimony has been telecast, American citizens and legislators are analyzing what was said and thinking about what should happen next. And that's will be doing on our show.

Our first guest, Bob Dole, was President Clinton's opponent during Clinton's re-election campaign. Bob Dole is considered the consummate politician. He served as the Senate Minority and Majority leader in Republican and Democratic administrations. He resigned from the Senate during his 1996 presidential campaign.

He now works for a Washington law firm. The Republican from Kansas has a new book about political wit.

I spoke with Bob Dole late this morning about the president's testimony.

President Clinton has taken a lot of heat for "parsing words;" for example, in sticking so close to a very narrow definition and making it as narrow as possible about what sexual relations are.

You work for a law firm now. Do you think that that was inappropriate for him to do, or, as somebody who is being interrogated, do you think it's appropriate to keep to as narrow a definition as you can and give as little information as you can get away with?

FORMER SEN. ROBERT DOLE (D-KS), FORMER SENATE MINORITY AND MAJORITY LEADER: Well, I think he's right when he says that it's not his job to -- he doesn't represent the other side. If they don't ask him the questions, he doesn't have any -- even though he may be president of United States, he doesn't have any obligation to just volunteer everything. You know, obviously, people are going to try to protect themselves, whether it's Bill Clinton or Harry Jones or whoever it might be.

So -- and I think he's also very concerned about one of the articles -- breaking one of the articles of impeachment, perjury. Obviously, he's going to try to protect himself. Now, is that wrong? I don't think so. I mean I think everybody who goes before a grand jury is going to try to protect themselves.

This was a little different proceeding because he was allowed to have a lawyer president and it was videotaped and things of that kind. But I think at this point, obviously he needs to try to protect himself, even though I -- and these polls don't really mean much. I saw a poll today saying, well, 60-some percent of the people think he's not telling the truth or trying to cover up something. Well, when you are, in effect, a defendant's, you're going to respond questions in a way you think can help you. Now, if they don help, well, then, he made a mistake.

GROSS: Well, what's your critique of Kenneth Starr and the line of questioning that the prosecutors used in their...

DOLE: Yeah, Starr -- Judge Starr never really asked a question. But, again, you know, I don't -- never met Judge Starr. I've talked to lawyers in his law firm, in fact, one Democrat lawyer, a fellow out in Chicago told me what a great guy he was. I think there have been bad judgments on each side. I think, in my view, I think all this effort to destroy anybody who got in the way of the White House spin machine and maybe, I don't know, leaks or something coming out of somewhere, but all this stuff the last several months.

But I think the bottom line -- I think the president knows it now. I mean, obviously in January, he probably felt this was never going to happen, but it's happened. And now he's got to deal with it. He knows it serious. And as I said earlier -- earlier on, I think we just have to let the process work for awhile and see what happens.

GROSS: I'm wondering if you're concerned that partisanship might make the process of trying to impeach the president more destructive for the country than healing for it.

DOLE: Well, I thought about that a lot, because, you know, we don't overturn elections easily in this country and we shouldn't. But, again, there is a process, it's in the Constitution. I remember I was fairly partisan back in -- in fact, I'd been party chairman in 1971 and '72. And of course, the Watergate burglary was in June 'of 72. That November, Nixon carried 49 states; his approval ratings were up in the 60s. It sounds sort of like Clinton's approval ratings.

But then they started these Watergate hearings, which is not going to happen here. And by the time it got to the Judiciary Committee, you know, Nixon was not that strong. But -- and of course, when they voted articles of impeachment, as I recall, three articles, before it even when to the House floor, a delegation went to the White House said told President Nixon: you know, it's over, you don't have the votes.

So I think we have to be very careful. I don't know of any -- I hear talk this morning that in the White House there may be some bold move that could resolve this thing. I don't know what that would be, but I thought about it a lot. In fact, I met with the president last Friday evening, we touched on this. But I think we just have to let it proceed, as "The Washington Post" said today, and see what happens.

GROSS: How would you compare what Clinton is accused of with what Nixon was accused of in Watergate?

DOLE: Well, I think there are obviously differences. I think it was much clearer in the Watergate case as far as obstruction of justice. He never -- Nixon never lied to a grand jury, which is another difference and probably a negative as far as Clinton's concerned. But, you know, the articles of impeachment, there are, what, I guess 11, I don't know, I haven't read it all, but tampering with a witness, obstruction of justice, perjury; those same allegations and articles were included in Nixon's.

But you know, I'm not certain that makes any difference. It seems to me, just looking at it, trying to be objective about it, it's going to be what Democrats do. I mean, I recall in Watergate times, it's not what Republicans -- what -- not what the Democrats said, and they controlled the Congress then and they were pretty -- some of them very, very partisan.

Some who were still on the Judiciary Committee were very partisan. And Republicans were partisan. We had a lot of partisanship. But when the Republican started to break ranks, that's when Nixon's stock went down. And when we have people like Senator Lieberman and Senator Moynihan -- and if that continues, that erosion continues, that will be the problem for -- a bigger problem for President Clinton.

It's not so much, you know, the process is going to move forward. But when thoughtful people like Senator Lieberman, who have respect across the spectrum, you know, both sides, that, you know, that's obviously a minus for the president's efforts.

GROWS: Now, you say during Watergate that, I guess it was some Republicans took Nixon aside and said: look, it's all over. So you know, he had no choice but to resign?

DOLE: Well, I think, you know, just trying to recall all that -- in fact, I've asked somebody to go up and dig up all the ref, you know, all the chronology in the Watergate, because you forget after that length of time. But I remember in the Senate, and I was in the Senate, I think we were down to about 12 solid votes that might vote against, you know, if it came, if impeachment came, that might vote against it in the Senate. Well, you need 34. And so I think it was when Senator Goldwater, Senator Scott of Pennsylvania, who was then the Republican leader, and Congressman John Rhodes from Arizona, who was the House Republican leader, went to Nixon said: you know, it's over. And then the president did what I think he should have done at that time, he resigned.

But obviously we're a long way from that. President Clinton would like to find an alternative. I know that, I talked to him. Obviously, he doesn't want to leave office and no one does. And so I think we let it play out here for awhile. Obviously, the videotape, in my view, was sort of a wash. There are no bombshells. The president, I think, knew it was going to be shown. I think he probably was -- he does a good job, but there are still a lot of the people confused about the legalisms and what the word "is" means, and things -- that kind of thing. I mean, you know, I think people are confused. Some are disgusted on both sides. Some are disgusted with Republicans, some are disgusted with Clinton, some are just disgusted with the whole process. And obviously, the quicker we can get this finished, faster, the better.

GROSS: Were you glad that President Nixon resigned before he was officially impeached?

DOLE: Well, glad, no, I was sad. I mean, I would be sad it happened with Clinton. I mean...

GROSS: I guess what I mean it is, are you glad that you didn't have to go that final step and actually impeach him, that he left before he was...

DOLE: Well, I think if you look back on it, probably so. I mean, I think when he saw the handwriting on the wall, and he knew this was going to happen in any event, why go through all of that? So I guess the answer would be relieved for the country. And they got -- it's more than the individual, it's not whether it's Nixon or Clinton or Bob Dole or somebody else or some judge being impeached, it's what it does to the country, this day after day, this -- I think it was Senator John Kerry said this drip, drip, drip every day, the water torture, and whether or not you can focus on your job.

And it's got -- I know in Nixon's case, no question about it; the last 30, 60, 90 days I've got to believe that 80, 90 percent of his time was spent on how do we deal with Watergate? And I've got to believe that right now a great deal of the president's time is spent on how do we deal with this? And I don't fault him for that. I mean, he's got to focus on it. I mean, this is a threat to his survival as far as president is concerned.

GROSS: Now, you said that you were speaking with President Clinton last Friday, giving him some advice, I guess.

DOLE: Well, not advice. I went down to -- I've been asked to go by the president and Madeleine Albright to Kosovo two weeks ago, and I went along with Secretary -- Assistant Secretary John Shattuck, secretary for Human Rights. He does a great job, by the way. And we saw -- I wanted to report personally to the president what I'd seen, because it seems to me we need to be resolute in some action against Milosevic, the Serbian president, because they'd driven to two or 300,000 people up into the mountains.

They're mostly children, 60 percent are children, 20-some percent are women. They're without much clothing, not much protection. It's winter time. In another couple of weeks, it's going to be below freezing. And Milosevic, the Serb Army, the Serb police and the Yugoslav army destroyed their homes, destroyed their crops. And we go through village after village where all you could hear were -- could hear dogs barking. Nobody home. Everybody had fled. They were afraid to come back home.

And both President Bush and President Clinton warned Milosevic will not let happen in Kosovo what happened in Bosnia. And I wanted to make my case to President Clinton that if he decides to take action I'll stand up with him, I'll stand beside him. This is not "Wag the Dog;" this is our national honor and character at stake. And when he made that statement, or President Bush may that statement, Milosevic had better understand that, you know, we mean it; this is the United States of America, we're not some third-rate tin horn power. And my view is we have to do it very soon before you start seeing images on TV and reports on NPR that they're carrying dead babies out of the mountains who froze to, death or 80-year-old women or whatever.

And that was my primary purpose. But we did touch on the other. And I was, you know, happy to talk -- pleased to talk to the president about it. I can -- I'm trying to be fair and objective, you know. I haven't said a word about it. As I told the president, I've been very restrained, I'm going to let the process work. I haven't called for resignation, I haven't call for any drastic action. And we have a process. And if something else can be developed as this goes along, I think it's fine, but let's see what it is.

GROSS: You know, I can't help but wonder how it must feel for you to be talking to -- and perhaps even offering some advice to the president on the possibility of impeachment, when this is the man who you ran against for the office and who won.

DOLE: Well, I said very clearly he was my opponent, not my enemy. And I've had relationship with President Clinton; he asked me to be chairman of the International Commission on Missing Persons in Bosnia, where about 30,000 people just disappeared. We think they're buried in different mass graves. And I've been over four times this year; went to Bosnia last Christmas with my wife Elizabeth and Mrs. Clinton, with the president, to greet the troops. So you know, my view is that when there's something in the national interest, you set aside politics.

So I don't wish any, you know, I don't wish anyone ill fortune. I mean, obviously, this is a very serious problem; the president knows it. He knows it's self-inflicted. He knows it's not going to be easy to deal with. He's, in effect, said he lied to the American people.

But having said all that, you know, if he wants to talk to me, the president of United States, I'm available.

GROSS: My guest is Bob Dole. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is former senator and former presidential candidate Bob Dole.

You were in politics a long time, and you've known everybody in politics very well. And I'd really like to hear how typical or unusual you think it is for an elected leader to have strayed in the area of personal relationships, and in straying, to have not been forthcoming about what actually happened.

DOLE: Yeah, well, I think it's particularly important, because some people see the White House as some sort of shrine. It's not maybe what happened 10, 20, 30 years ago; it's what happened once you're in this very prestigious, the most important job in the world. The most revered building in America, I guess, would be the White House, I mean, as far as people look at it and people line up for blocks, as you know, to just go through to see parts of it.

And I think all of this has left some people sort of numb.

And I've been traveling around the country a lot either speaking or maybe campaigning, whatever. And you hear a lot of people, they have different views. I think the question is is that this is just about sex; is this an impeachable offense? As bad as it may be, it may be shame on the White House. And of course, if it's just about sex -- but I think it's also about maybe perjury, and as I said earlier, obstruction of justice.

But you know, it's traumatic to a lot of people.

GROSS: But finish that thought. It it's just about sex ... what?

DOLE: Well, I think that's going to be the $64 question. If this is all there is, if they say there's no perjury and no obstruction and know tampering with witness an abusive office, whatever, are they going to do this? I think it's a close call, at this point. I would doubt it.

GROSS: But in getting back to that other question, do you think that it's fairly common or very unusual for an elected leader to have been involved in an inappropriate sexual relationship and to have, you know...

DOLE: I think...

GROSS: ... not been very forthcoming about it?

DOLE: Yeah, I don't think it's common. I mean, I think -- and, again, I think there is a distinction. I mean, I think, you know, when you run for the office of president, your life's an open book. And if you don't want to to face the scrutiny from the media, and most media are very responsible, there's some out there, as you know, on the fringe, who will publish anything without any sources; then you've got to stand up and prove a negative, which is difficult.

But you know, once it happens and once -- if you get elected, things have changed since FDR and Kennedy and others who said -- you know, you read now about -- let's go back to FDR. You know, only one picture that I know of shows him in a wheelchair. I mean, everybody was very sensitive to private lives, with disability, whatever your private life was was private. Now it's changed. I think with all the media outlets and all the competition, everybody's out they're trying to get a story. And unfortunately, and some of the irresponsible people out there buy the story without much to back it up.

GROSS: I'm wondering if you are concerned, as some people have expressed their concern, that all of this scrutiny about the president's private life, no matter how inappropriate that relationship he had with Monica Lewinsky was, that all of the kind of scrutiny and power that's brought to bear on investigating his sexual life, might scare so many people from ever entering politics.

DOLE: Well, I don't think that's the case. I mean, if somebody's got a real problem then they, you know, that might keep them away from it. But I think, you know, there are good people out there in both parties, men and women. The countries going to go forward. You know, I thought when I left, only choking, but thought when I left the Senate in June of '96, they might have to lock it up because I wasn't there. But you know, the funny thing, they kept right on going...

GROSS: Yeah.

DOLE: ... and they're doing a good job. And my friends are still there. I miss it, but that's the way it works. And just -- the country keeps moving forward. And you know, this is not a very nice chapter -- this time to see the president of the United States on television raising his right hand. It's sort of a spectacle, in a sense. But, again, that was all worked out with a president's lawyers and the prosecutor, and he had a lawyer there. So this was sort of quasi-grand jury thing. I mean, he had a lawyer present, and they did it, you know, by television instead of before the grand jury.

But having set all that, let's get it over with, let's move as quickly as we can. If some genius out there has some -- I suggest, well, maybe just had the election over again, you know, just have a square off one more time, say New Year's Day, Bob Dole versus Clinton.


Have it all over again.

GROSS: Give you another chance.

DOLE: I get one more shot. He'd probably win, anyway.

GROSS: I'm sure that one will fly.

DOLE: I don't think that will go anywhere.



Bob Dole, recorded earlier today. Tomorrow we'll talk with Bob Dole about his new book, which is called "Great Political Wit: Laughing Almost all the Way to the White House."

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross
Guest: Robert Dole
High: Former senator and presidential candidate Robert Dole. He's written a new book about political humor. Terry will talk with him about his thoughts on the Clinton scandal.
Spec: Clinton; Starr Report; Monica Lewinsky; Politics; Bob Dole

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Dole on Politics, Humor & Clinton

Date: SEPTEMBER 22, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 092202NP.217
Head: John Ellis
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:50

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Sex scandals are nothing new in politics. In fact, Founding Father Thomas Jefferson had one of his own that surfaced when he was president.

Joseph Ellis is the author of a character study of Thomas Jefferson called "Americans Sphinx." Ellis writes: "The best and the worst of American history are inextricably tangled together in Jefferson."

I asked Ellis to describe Jefferson's sex scandal.

JOSEPH ELLIS, HISTORIAN; AUTHOR, "AMERICANS SPHINX: THE CHARACTER OF THOMAS JEFFERSON": Jefferson was accused in 1802 of having a sexual relationship with a mulatto slave named Sally Hemmings. The story was broken by a reporter in the Richmond "Recorder" in that year. He was in his second year of his presidency. He made no direct response to the charge, but it spread throughout the land.

And in fact, a few years later in the Massachusetts legislature, the Massachusetts legislature actually took out impeachment proceedings against President Jefferson; had no constitutional or legal standing; a state can't impeach a president, it was done for political reasons. But one of the charges against him, in addition to the fact that they accused him of being an atheist and an adulterer, was that he had this relationship with this mulatto slave.

And he responded by saying the charges were untrue, save one charge, that he did make a -- did proposition a married woman when he was a younger man. He never responded directly to the charge.

And Jefferson's one of those people who really did believe that the private life of even a public figure should be allowed to remain private.

GROSS: So how much was he put on the spot about this? How doggedly pursued was the story?

ELLIS: It was pursued pretty doggedly in the press. I mean, especially in New England and New York and Pennsylvania, which was territory under the control then of the opposition party. They used it as a pretty effective club.

So in the end, he ran for re-election in 1804 and won by a landslide. And so it was rather similar to the situation that pertains with Clinton now. Inside the Beltway, there's this huge presumption that Clinton should resign or be impeached, or at least that seems to be the tenor of the media coverage; whereas, in the country at-large, his approval rate remains over 60 percent.

Similarly with Jefferson, the press really went after him, but the public re-elected him by a huge margin.

Another scandal at the same time, just a few years earlier, 1797, involved Alexander Hamilton, who was accused of an adulterous relationship with a women named Maria Reynolds. And interestingly, Hamilton, who was secretary of the Treasury when the incident occurred, took out a full-page ad in the New York newspapers saying, in fact, it was true, he did have an adulterous with this woman. But it was untrue that it had had any effect on his public behavior and his policies as secretary of the Treasury.

So he wished to try to preserve that distinction between mistakes he made privately -- for which he apologized to his wife and family -- and the public business of the nation.

GROSS: How do you think this alleged affair with Sally Hemmings affects Jefferson standing in history?

ELLIS: I think it's had a greater effect on his standing in history over the last 30 or 40 years than it actually did in his own time when he was president. I mean, I think that more people have become interested in this as race and the relationship between Blacks and Whites over American history has become a central window through which we look back at the past. And it is one of the issues on which Jefferson, a great icon, a great hero of American history, is brought down off of his pedestal and rendered less admirable.

But I've also heard some people claim that Jefferson -- they think that Jefferson was in love with Sally Hemmings and that this was America's first bi-racial couple. No one knows the truth here, and because the evidence is so skimpy and so murky, people can project into this pretty much what they want to.

But I do think it's damaged his reputation as one of the alleged American heroes.

GROSS: What do you think the Founding Fathers would have to say about President Clinton's position?

ELLIS: Well, I think that the, you know, certainly the notion that he committed these sexual indiscretions while in public office would be for them something that they would not approve of. I don't think that many of them would regard the act or the alleged perjury that he's committed as sufficient to reach the threshold of impeachment, however.

And some of them would -- a few of them would. But most of the framers or the Founding Fathers, so called, wanted that threshold for impeachment to be very, very high. And Jefferson himself said it should be very rarely employed, because it essentially took away from the electorate, the people at large, the right to decide who's president. And he was very reluctant to ever cross that democratic threshold.

GROSS: Joseph Ellis, thank you very much for talking with us.

ELLIS: My pleasure.

GROSS: Joseph Ellis is the author of "American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson," which was recently published in paperback. Ellis is a professor of history at Mount Holyoke College.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross
Guest: Joseph Ellis
High: Historian Joseph Ellis is an expert on Thomas Jefferson and author of "American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson." He'll discuss the current situation with President Clinton in light of the behavior and character of past presidents. Ellis is a professor of American History at Mount Holyoke College, and has written five other books including "Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams."
Spec: Joseph Ellis; Clinton; Politics; Government

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: John Ellis
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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