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What the History Can Tell Us About President Clinton's Scandal

Presidential historian Michael Beschloss talks about the historical importance of the Clinton investigation. Beschloss examines how the threat of impeachment has been used and abused in the past. He is author of "Taking Charge: the Johnson White House tapes 1963-64," which will be issued on paperback this week.


Other segments from the episode on September 14, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 14, 1998: Interview with Michael Beschloss; Commentary on the Emmy Awards and television coverage of the Starr Report.


Date: SEPTEMBER 14, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 091401np.217
Head: Impeachment, Indiscretions & the American Presidency
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

BARBARA BOGAVE, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogave, in for Terry Gross.

The debate about whether the House should move forward with impeachment hearings on President Clinton's alleged misconduct focuses on whether his actions constitute high crimes and misdemeanors of an impeachable nature.

We've invited presidential historian Michael Beschloss to help us place this debate in an historical context. Beschloss is the author of four books about the American presidency, including "The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khruschev," and "Kennedy and Roosevelt: The Uneasy Alliance." His most recent book, "Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes," is coming out in paperback this week.

Michael Beschloss is also a regular commentator for "The NewsHour" with Jim Lehrer on PBS.

I asked him to give us some examples of presidential misconduct that former presidents got away with; examples which might shed light on the standards Congress will use to decide whether to go ahead with the impeachment process.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN; COMMENTATOR, PBS' "THE NEWSHOUR"; AUTHOR, "TAKING CHARGE: THE JOHNSON WHITE HOUSE TAPES 1963-1964": Well, you know, if Richard Nixon were here, he would say that what I was thrown out of office for was not very different from what some of my predecessors like Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson did.

Nixon's argument would've been: Roosevelt, for instance, abused the Internal Revenue Service, used the tax structure to go after his political enemies. He would've said that Kennedy abused the FBI; used FBI files to embarrass people who were opposed to him.

So Nixon's argument would've been: I was taking -- was hauled -- taken into account -- I was brought to justice for things that earlier presidents could've been impeached for.

But I think the difference is that after 1974, we've been living in a very new era. Before 1974, a Franklin Roosevelt or a John Kennedy could say: I'm going to have my enemies tax returns audited, for instance -- as Roosevelt and Kennedy did. And they could say that sort of a kind of thing that other presidents have done, people wouldn't like it if they knew about it; but that's the way the game is played. And that is the way that presidents actually helped to strengthen what is a rather weak office.

But after 1974, when Nixon was exposed and punished and thrown out of office, I think Americans have had a very standard for presidential conduct; so that the kind of thing that Bill Clinton is accused of -- which I think everyone agrees are much smaller than the kind of things that we talked about in the case of Richard Nixon. Nonetheless, it makes a very different statement in the 90s than it might have made 40 years ago.

BOGAVE: The president is facing trouble not only for his personal conduct, or alleged personal conduct, but also for the way in which he handled the charge of personal misconduct. Were past presidents honest from the get-go? What examples are there of how presidents handled the charge of personal misconduct?

BESCHLOSS: In general, presidents have tried, needless to say, cover up things that they may have done wrong. To take the case, I mean, Nixon is always the gold standard. There's a saying that "the problem with presidents is not always the crime, it's the cover up." That sure was the case with Nixon. But you know, there's this canard these days, Barbara, that presidents just sort of lie as a matter of course, and that you look at every president in recent times and you can find lies that are of major proportion. And that's really not true.

One of the cases that is raised is Dwight Eisenhower in 1960. There was a U2 spy plane that was shot down over the Soviet Union, and there was a cover story released by the American government that this was just a weather plane that had strayed into Soviet air space. Again, a fine distinction. The people around Eisenhower said: if we have to put out a story like this, make sure it comes from people other than the president, because it is much too important that a president of the United States never lie to the American people directly -- that Eisenhower be protected from this.

And so the result was that the cover story was handed out at lower levels; it was even defended by the Secretary of State Christian Herter before Congress, to the point that Herter could've been convicted for perjury. But the point is that they made an enormous effort to make sure that no lie escape President Eisenhower's lips, and so it did not.

And so the result is that if you have to look for a case in which a president lied directly to the face of the American people, you really have to go, once again, to Nixon. In '73 or '74, over and over again, Nixon gave these speeches saying: I had no involvement in the Watergate cover up; that was and is the simple truth.

That is about as close to a lie as we've had on this Earth.

And so if you go back to Bill Clinton in January, when he said "I had no sexual relations with that women, Ms. Lewinsky," unless you've got a very particular definition of "sexual relations," that is sort of the second big case in recent times in which a president has broken faith with the American people.

BOGAVE: The distinction, though, that of course many people make in this situation is that it not only matters that you lied, but it matters what your lying about. And the president's legal team does appear to be basing their defense on the idea that the president sought to protect his private life from exposure, and that his actions, his lying, his efforts all stemmed from that single motive.

How have we defined the line between the private and the public lives of our presidents in the past?

BESCHLOSS: Before the 1980s, the standard always was, especially among the press, that if a president's private life did not affect what he did publicly, then it would not be reported. And you take a look at the obvious case, John Kennedy in the early 1960s. John Kennedy, from everything we know, was probably involved with many more women than Bill Clinton, and some of them rather dangerous.

In the summer of 1963, John Kennedy was involved with a woman Ellen Romesch (ph), who was the wife of an employee of the West German embassy. She at the time was under surveillance by the FBI as a possible secret agent of the East Germans. Kennedy, we now know, was involved with her, and that very nearly became public. She was spirited out of the country and managed to be covered up. But you know, if that had been revealed at the time, that Kennedy had been involved with a suspected East German agent, not only could've that been possible impeachable, but imagine what would've happened in this country. You would've had people saying: Aha, the reason why Kennedy has been friendly toward the Soviets and tried to negotiate with them lately is because he's been blackmailed by the East Germans. He was afraid that they would reveal what had happened. Would've poisoned American politics for a generation.

But the point I would make is that Kennedy's involvement in the early 1960s would make a very different statement from a public figure, and particularly a president being involved with a lot of women today. Because Kennedy could rely on the fact that he knew that in most cases that kind of thing would not be reported. And as horrible as the conduct was, it was not quite as reckless, because he was not flirting with the danger that he could immediately destroy his presidency.

I would say that for an eminent public figure, and particularly a president in the 1990s, it makes a very different kind of statement, because -- especially since 1987 when Gary Hart was driven out of the presidential race for a relationship with a woman on Capitol Hill that was immediately revealed. All public figures, and particularly presidents, have to just understand that there is no longer such a thing as private life.

And then to take that to the question of lying, I guess what I would say is that I could not imagine a case in which it is permissible for a president to lie, except in a case that it's clear of national security. So by that standard, I think what Bill Clinton said in January does not look very good.

BOGAVE: I think some people, particularly after reading the Starr Report and the details about the alleged sexual behavior in it, feel that the president no longer has the moral stature to lead the nation. How exacting have Americans been at the morals of past presidents?

BESCHLOSS: If you're thinking about sort of public trust and public morality, Americans have tended to have a rather idealistic view. And because we've learned so little about presidential private lives, and we've been relying on what we knew about in public at the time, Americans have tended to assume that if someone manages to get nominated by a major party and then elected president, that this must be someone of uncommon wisdom.

And if you look at cases, for instance, of the presidents of the 20th century, Americans have in general had very high opinions of the moral stature of the people who led them. Obviously an exception to that would be Nixon in the case of Watergate.

But the problem here is this: the Founders, when they devised the office of the presidency, they wanted to make sure that it was actually rather weak. The big experience that was in their minds was the experience of being under the tyranny of the British king; they were very worried that the presidency could grow into a dictatorship. And the result was that in the Constitution, they gave presidents very few powers.

And so if you look at American history, those rather few cases in which you had very strong presidents, cases like Abraham Lincoln in the 19th century, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson in the early part of this century, and then the presidents from Franklin Roosevelt through roughly Ronald Reagan, those have been cases in which presidents have been able to maximize their power by using other things.

And one of the things that they've used is this sense that the president is something other than usually the run-of-the-mill of other figures in our political system; that the president has this uncommon wisdom, so that, for instance, when the president goes on television and says: I want you to take my word that I think it's important for you to possible give up your sons' and daughters' lives in a war somewhere in the world -- Americans are going to pay attention to that in a way that they might not to, let's say, the speaker of the House or a local sheriff.

That very much depends on this almost mystical belief that the president of the United States has uncommon judgment, and also, uncommon truthfulness. When that bond is broken, it is awfully hard for a president to ask members of Congress or the American people to make that kind of sacrifice.

BOGAVE: Again, on this private versus public issue, has there ever been a time when the president's personal habits were called up to scrutiny, were prosecuted? And I suppose this question is: has there ever in the past a situation came up in which the question of whether a sitting president could be indicted for personal behavior?

BESCHLOSS: Nothing like this in our history. And that's one reason why we're all sort of groping for some way to understand all of this; and we have, since the 21st of January, when this scandal began this year. We've never had a situation in which we've learned this kind of personal detail about a president's private life at the time he served.

You know, you think of some of these other cases, like John Kennedy, most Americans did not have any idea that John Kennedy was unfaithful to his wife, until roughly the mid-1970s, when tabloid stories began to tumble out.

Most Americans had no idea that Franklin Roosevelt had a romance that dated to the teens in this century, with Lucy Mercer, who was his wife's social secretary. They didn't find that out until 1966, 21 years after Roosevelt died. And that was because a Roosevelt aide wrote a memoir in which he mentioned this, and an excerpt was published in "LIFE" magazine. It created quite a sensation.

But the point I'm making is that we have never had to cope with this kind of thing at the same time that we're depending on a president for leadership. And the result of this is that it causes us to look at a president almost with two eyes; one eyes is looking at the speech he's giving on health care, and the other eye is perhaps our mental image, thinking of the kind of things that we've read about in the Starr Report and heard about elsewhere. And it sure does undermine a president's dignity; makes it a lot harder for him to serve to serve.

But the other thing is that since we don't have this sort of mental framework in which we've done this before, I think all of us are trying to decide we cope with all of this.

BOGAVE: My guest is Michael Beschloss. He's the author of four books about the American presidency, including "Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes."

We'll take more after the break. This is FRESH AIR.


BOGAVE: We're back with presidential historian Michael Beschloss.

Let's talk a bit about sex and the presidency. Many Europeans have expressed bewilderment about the president's scandal; why Americans make such a fuss about their politician's sex lives. Is there any way to put this in any historical perspective? And perhaps, besides the example of Kennedy, what are some of the more interesting cases where a -- president's have engaged in sexual indiscretions?

BESCHLOSS: Well, taking a look at this century, even Woodrow Wilson, believe it or not, who was thought of as this rather priggish figure was involved with a woman -- who was not his wife -- during his first marriage. And there was actually a danger that this might come out during the campaign of 1912 when Wilson was first running for the presidency. And there were letters from the woman to Wilson, and there was a worry that these might be published. It turns out that some friends and handlers of Wilson were able to lean on the woman and make sure that they did not become public. And once again, here is a case in which we Americans and historians did not find out about this until many years later.

Probably the biggest case in this century of the presidential rake would be Warren Harding, who was involved with many women not his wife, from his early life in Ohio -- the early part of his marriage. And actually saw various women during his presidency, including one whom he saw in the room off the Oval Office, who after his death in 1923, wrote a book about it, which was called "The President's Daughter." It mentioned the fact that Harding had fathered an illegitimate daughter. Needless to say, had any of this become known while Harding was president, it would've been very hard for him to stay in office, especially given puritanical America in the 1920s.

But beyond that, I guess one distinction I would draw, at least as an historian, is between a president who has hundreds of women, or at least dozens, and doesn't have a particular relationship with them beyond physical, and presidents who had romances that were a little bit more serious. I'm not saying one is more moral than the other, but I think there is a distinction to be drawn.

And that is why I think I'm a little bit reluctant sometimes to see someone like Wilson, for instance, and this was a romance with the woman I mentioned; or Franklin Roosevelt, thrown into the same hopper as a John Kennedy or a Warren Harding, who I think engaged in, perhaps, great quantities.

In Roosevelt's case -- as I mentioned, Roosevelt was involved with this young woman early in his life, and almost broke his marriage to Eleanor. And there's a possibility that Roosevelt was also involved with a woman named Missy Lehand (ph), who served as his secretary before she suffered a stroke in 1941, during the Roosevelt presidency.

And then you think of other presidents throughout history; there have been rather few who were engaging in relationships with women in such numbers that they threatened to become public. And so, once again here, we're not dealing with sort of a long history that offers us many lessons.

BOGAVE: Is that how you understand the public's initial reaction to the details in this Starr Report? That they are also making the same kind of distinction that you're talking about, that the president's behavior, at least in -- alleged behavior in this portion of his sex life, is just not presidential.

BESCHLOSS: I think what Americans are saying is that this is the kind of thing they really wish a president would not do, and failing that, they wished that he had been competent enough to make sure that they wouldn't have to learn about this at the time he was president.

In a way, it's almost even a test of presidential competence, because in the earlier cases, you have to say that some of these other presidents, like Harding and Kennedy, at least managed to make sure that this did not become a political issue at the time they were president, and did not endanger their presidencies and all they issues that they stood for and all the people who had worked for them. And so in this case, here's a case in which a president was not able to manage his private life, and it's become a major political scandal that could cause his removal from office.

BOGAVE: The speed of all of these events seems unprecedented: the full Starr Report was disclosed worldwide almost immediately on the Internet after the House vote; already a number of politicians, mostly Republicans, and more than 25 newspapers have called for the president's resignation on the basis of the report itself.

How does the velocity of this situation compare to other presidential scandals?

BESCHLOSS: This shows how much tougher it is for a president to govern in these times. You know, compare it to Richard Nixon and Watergate. The Watergate break-in occurred in mid-June 1972; that began the Watergate scandal, which lasted for two years and two months, until Nixon's resignation on August 9th, 1974. And because we didn't have 24-hours news channels at the time, and the press was so much slower in terms of its tempo -- and of course there was no Internet -- one good result of that was people got evidence slowly, and they were very careful to sort of form opinions on the basis of what they then knew.

And for those two years and two months, you didn't have this sort of constant (unintelligible) with rumors appearing in the public arena, and people immediately calling of the president to resign. I believe the first Republican senator to call on Nixon to resign, didn't do so until the Spring of 1974, almost two years after the original Watergate break-in.

And I think the lesson from Watergate is that Americans were very willing to say: I don't have all the evidence yet; there is a process, a legal process, and also the House and Senate are investigating the crimes that Richard Nixon has been accused of; I'm going to wait until they can tell me what evidence they think is reliable, what evidence they think is unreliable, and also in which they give a recommendation whether or not Nixon is guilty.

And it's a wonderful story for the American people, because what you see is Americans generally were very fair in waiting to rush to judgment on Nixon until relatively late in the game. And the only time there was an enormous rockslide to impeachment was July of 1974, when the evidence began to get too great to ignore. And the 1st of August 1974, when the Nixon tapes were released that showed that he was undeniably engaged in using the FBI and the CIA to try to cover up the kind of things that he had done in Watergate, especially the break-in in the Democratic headquarters.

Contrast all of that to 1998. I can think of one case I had, which is the Lewinsky story broke, as I recall, on a Wednesday in late January, 1998. And the next day I got a call from a reporter for a major news magazine, saying: we need an interview with you quickly, because Clinton might be impeached before the weekend.

Now obviously it's impossible for the House of Representative to impeach a president at the drop of a hat with no hearing or any consideration before then, but it sort of shows you how much more sped up things have become by 1998. People thought that that was actually possible.

BOGAVE: Michael Beschloss' most recent book "Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes," is out in paperback.

We'll continue our conversation in the second half of the show. I'm Barbara Bogave, and this is FRESH AIR.


BOGAVE: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogave, sitting in for Terry Gross.

We're back with more of our interview with presidential historian Michael Beschloss. He's written four books about the American presidency, including "Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes." He's also a regular commentator for the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS.

When we left off, we were talking about how technology has sped up the delivery of news and news about the Clinton investigation. I asked Beschloss if this faster era of information tempts the public to reach conclusions too quickly.

BESCHLOSS: I think the problem is this: the Constitution was designed so that if there were big decisions to be made by the House or Senate, for instance, the idea was that these would be done slowly after a lot of consultation with the American people, and actually so that members of the House and Senate would have a lot of time to sort of ponder themselves what they should do, especially in a momentous case like the impeachment of a president; which as Dick Gephardt said last week, absolutely rightly, is just about the most important thing that a Congress can do short of declaring war.

The problem with the atmosphere of the 1990s is it's so different than anything that the founders anticipated. You've got instant communications; the ability to send rumors around the world to audiences of conceivably billions of people on the Internet. There's an enormous din. And that's about the worst atmosphere for the American people to slowly reach a judgment on a president, or for members of the House and Senate to do the same.

And I think one of the most impressive things about the last eight months -- if we had to sort of pull a silver lining out of this whole grim episode -- is Americans have not been willing to rush to judgment. Despite all the rumors that have been thrown at them, they've been very loathe to instantly declare Bill Clinton guilty or to say "we believe them." It really has taken eight months for public opinion to begin to move.

BOGAVE: Both the Democrats and the Republicans have emphasized in the last few days the need for a non-partisan approach during the inquiry into whether we should go forward with impeachment. In the two instances that impeachment has been initiated against presidents in the past -- Nixon and Andrew Johnson -- how well did that work?

BESCHLOSS: It was really essential. In both cases, Andrew Johnson and Richard Nixon, by the time that this process really reached its final moment, these had really become non-partisan exercises. In the case of Johnson, for instance, the reason why Johnson initially got into impeachment trouble was because he had angered a lot of political enemies, radical Republicans, who disagreed with his policies in dealing with the South in the wake of the Civil War. They were very angry at him and they essentially used impeachment as a way of attacking Johnson for political issues that they were angry about.

But once the impeachment process began -- the House impeached and then it went to the Senate -- Johnson was saved by those very radical Republicans, his political enemies who hated him on other issues but felt that he was being unfairly railroaded. So the result of that one was Johnson was saved by one vote, and it was the vote of someone who very much disagreed with him politically. The outcome would have been very different if it was simply a partisan exercise.

And also the same thing with Richard Nixon. Nixon at the beginning, his impeachment trouble came from essentially his enemies in the House and Senate, liberal Democrats who disagreed with him about all sorts of things, including the Vietnam War. And that was true for much of the Watergate scandal. But when you get to the summer of 1974, what happened then was Republicans who were Nixon supporters on all the issues began to see that he did a lot of things that they disapproved of in terms of abuse of power and obstruction of justice.

And the time when Nixon's impeachment became certain was the beginning of August, 1974, when three men went to the White House to tell him that his prospects were very grim; and those were John Rhodes, who was the House Republican leader; Hugh Scott, who was the Senate Republican leader; and Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential nominee who was sort of the image of the Republican Party, at least the Conservative wing. It was these three men who went to him and said: Mr. President, we love you politically, but we feel that this is the time at which your career should be over.

BOGAVE: One argument, though, that some are making against impeachment is that it would set a terrible precedent for what a president could be thrown out of office for; in this case, concealing adultery and activities derived from that motive. Does the example of Andrew Johnson's and Nixon's impeachments -- impeachment inquiries bear up this point of view?

BESCHLOSS: They do. The Founders very much wanted to set the bar very high. They were very worried that we'd get into a situation that nowadays is sort of like the Italian parliament, where almost every three days there's a vote of no confidence and a prime minister is thrown out over some minor issue like parking tickets.

That's the opposite of what the Founders wanted the presidency to be. They essentially wanted presidents to stay in office. They didn't suggest very many ways to punish them. For instance, we've heard lately about this idea of possibly censuring or reprimanding President Clinton for what he's done instead of impeaching him. That might happen but there's no provision for it in the Constitution. The House and Senate would be improvising.

So the result is that the Founders basically said: we want presidents to stay in office, but we're going to offer you this -- like an emergency cord on a bus that you can yank if there is something that shows itself and seems to be so important as to cause a president's removal from office.

Andrew Johnson didn't meet that test. He was essentially accused of having violated something called the "Tenure in Office Act" and then fired a cabinet member, secretary of war, who disagreed with his policies toward the South. The Senate basically said: we hate you politically, but you really are not guilty of this and we think that you should remain in office.

In the Nixon case, Nixon was accused of having done all sorts of things, such as using the FBI and the CIA to conceal the Watergate break-in and other crimes. And the evidence by the time that the House and the Senate had to act in August of 1974 was so great that it made it very obvious that Nixon had exceeded that threshold that the Founders set in the Constitution.

The trouble with the Clinton case is that I think it probably falls somewhere between what Johnson did and what Nixon did. We're in a very murky area here, which is not as clear-cut as the Watergate scandal. And the result is that we're going to have to be dealing with establishing a threshold that either is higher than what Clinton did or lower than what Clinton did.

And the other argument, that every time you get a president in danger of impeachment you weaken the office, is absolutely right. And the interesting thing is that that was the case that was made by Richard Nixon in his defense all through Watergate, which is: don't impeach me because I'm not guilty. But even if you think I'm guilty, you should not impeach me because then you will make future presidents subject to essentially votes of confidence by Congress, and they'll be thrown out of office at the drop of a hat and you'll have a very weakened office.

And in this case, Nixon was not wrong.

BOGAVE: My guest is presidential historian Michael Beschloss. His books include "Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes," "The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khruschev," and also "Kennedy and Roosevelt: The Uneasy Alliance." We'll talk more after the break.

This is FRESH AIR.


BOGAVE: If you're just joining us, I'm talking with presidential historian Michael Beschloss.

Let's consider for a moment the option of resignation. The White House at this time has issued a categorical denial that resignation is being considered. But should it be considered, what do you think it would do to the institution of the presidency? What precedent it would set for what's permissible for presidents to do -- to do in office?

BESCHLOSS: I am very much against the idea of Bill Clinton ever resigning as long as he feels that he is not guilty of crimes that would be roughly of the level of impeachment and removal from office.

I think that if he feels that he's innocent and he feels that he should stay in office, then he should fight, because that's the process that is there. And if you have a president resign, especially if he's got any question of whether he's guilty or not, then you've got a situation which you've established a precedent in the future where presidents can be driven out of office by the drumbeat of what is said on television or what is said elsewhere on the floors of the House and Senate. That was never anything that the Founders suggested and it could be very dangerous.

One problem with the Nixon case -- Nixon having resigned -- is this: I think actually Nixon should have allowed himself to go through the process of impeachment by the House and conviction by the Senate, which certainly would have happened. And the reason for that is this: Nixon, because he resigned and never really apologized for what he did and never really confessed to a lot of what he did, spent the last 19 years of his life going on television and writing books saying: I was driven out of office by essentially a left-wing coup. They tried to get the results that they could never get at a ballot box in the election of 1972. This was essentially sort of a putsch. And the result was that I was driven out of office illegitimately and this was a black page in American history.

Now, historians know that that was not true. People who read the text of the Nixon tapes and the other evidence know that that was not true. But by the early 1990s, there were an awful lot of people who didn't remember Watergate, and Nixon was able to make this point because the House and Senate had never put him through that process and he had never confessed.

BOGAVE: The other option bandied around is congressional censure. Why don't you tell us when it's been used and to what point and with what effect?

BESCHLOSS: Congress sometimes censures and reprimands its own members and sometimes members of the judiciary. It doesn't happen very often, but it does sometimes happen, for instance, in the case of Senator Joseph McCarthy in November of 1954; McCarthy, of course, had been questing after communists in government and American society. And by the end of '54, the Senate felt that he had gone too far in his methods and he was censured. And it paralyzed McCarthy; he died three years later; caused him no longer to be effective, certainly, as a senator, and absolutely as a national leader.

It's only happened in the history of the presidency once, and that is in the case of President Andrew Jackson. He vetoed the rechartering of the Bank of the United States. One House of Congress passed a censure resolution against him. It had no teeth because there was no punishment. It was sort of a nasty comment on Jackson, and Jackson could say this was by a House that was dominated by another party; wasn't shared by the other House of Congress.

And actually, two years later when Jackson's party reclaimed Congress, they expunged the censor resolution from the record so that it no longer existed. And actually, when historians and Americans think of Andrew Jackson, they don't think of him as a president who was censured because this was taken off the record.

You might have a situation now in which members of Congress say: we don't think that what Bill Clinton did was of the level of impeachment and removal, but we do think it was pretty horrible, so let's at least put ourselves on the record as having slapped him on the hands.

But if they do that, it's something for which there is no precedent in the Constitution, and it's also not going to have many teeth.

BOGAVE: When you think back over the course of events, how the independent counsel's mandate to investigate President Clinton began with Whitewater, has extended into the -- into these new allegations about the president's sex life, it does seem striking how much power the attorney general has in determining the nature of an investigation into the president, and the relative balance of power between the presidency and the Justice Department.

Historically, maybe you could walk us through a little bit of that dynamic that has existed between the two areas of government, and how it's played itself out in other administrations.

BESCHLOSS: One of the shocking things, I think, has been the effect of this Independent Counsel Law, which began in 1978, and that is this law that says that if there is serious evidence against a president or other covered members of the executive branch, as they're called, the attorney general can call for the appointment of an independent counsel to operate like a prosecutor and gather evidence and investigate.

That didn't really exist before the 1970s, and often times in history presidents and people around them have done things that had they been investigated by a special prosecutor, could have caused a big scandal and perhaps even endangered their continuing in office.

A surprising example of this is a president we all think of as someone of great integrity, and that's Harry Truman. It's sometimes forgotten, but about 1951 there were accusations against, not Truman, but people high up in his administration, that they had used illegal influence and taken gifts like deep freezes and mink coats.

And also there were a lot of accusations against high officials in the Bureau of Internal Revenue, as it was called in those days. In those days, the tax system was very much tied up with a lot of political patronage, and what happened here was people who were in charge of the income tax actually would fix tax cases of big Democratic contributors, almost the way that you'd fix a parking ticket.

My point is that if there'd been a special prosecutor at that time to investigate all this, it would have put the Truman presidency in serious jeopardy. So the point I'm making is that now that we're in this age of these investigations, presidents are a lot more subject to removal than they were before. And since 1978 when this law began, if you take a look at the presidents who have served since then, every single president has to one degree or another been in serious jeopardy by a special prosecutor.

Jimmy Carter, who we now think of, rightly, as a president of great integrity, was investigated for relationships between his brother Billy and a businessman from Libya and other interests. Ronald Reagan was investigated for Iran-Contra, as well as other things, and so was George Bush.

And so the result has been, rightly or wrongly, presidents have been much -- in much greater danger than they were before. I think this independent prosecutor law has gone way out of control and done all sorts of things that senators and congressmen never imagined in 1978.

BOGAVE: I'm curious what you personally find most interesting about the evolution of this situation with President Clinton.

BESCHLOSS: I think the surprising thing to me is that there have been doubts about Bill Clinton's character from the very beginning, early 1992. And they had something to do with what we've learned about Gennifer Flowers. But also had to do with the issues that came up like the draft. And then when he was president, the firing of the people in the travel office and the finding of 900 FBI files in the White House; and then when the state troops made accusations against his private life at the end of 1993; and there was the specter that the president may have called at least one of them to offer perhaps a federal job; and then Whitewater. There has been I think a general expectation that given all this, it wouldn't be very hard for a special prosecutor with $50 million to find a pattern of abuse of power, like Nixon's, that stretched all the way over the length of the Clinton presidency.

And I think one thing that you might hear from the House and Senate is that as bad as the Lewinsky scandal may be, that Kenneth Starr was not able to find that general pattern of abuse that I think many of Clinton's enemies and perhaps even a few of his friends, expected to find. And that could balance in his favor.

BOGAVE: President Clinton is widely known to be a student of presidential history, so maybe he's not a good example of this. But have presidents tended to learn from former presidents' mistakes?

BESCHLOSS: They really don't. I'm sorry to report that most presidents in American history do not read particularly very much, and much of what they learn about earlier presidents comes from what they hear from others, and oftentimes it's wrong. One of the fascinating things about Clinton is that I would say he's read more of presidential history and biography than any president I know of in this century. In that famous room off the Oval Office that we've been hearing about are a lot of books of presidential history, and the same is the case of the upstairs rooms in the White House.

One thing that's fascinating with Clinton is that this is someone who we know has wanted to be president since his teens, and has been reading all these books not just because they're sort of interesting, but he's been sort of learning what kind of things he might do when he runs for president and when he serves.

And you see little resonances of this oftentimes in the kind of things that Clinton says and does. One thing I've been fascinated about during this last week is when he gave one of his apologies to one group -- I think it was perhaps the middle of last week -- he said: I've let you down. I've let the country down. I've let down our system of government -- those are almost exactly verbatim the same words that Richard Nixon used in his interviews with David Frost in 1977. Obviously, that lodged somewhere in Bill Clinton's consciousness.

And another thing that was a scene that sort of was something that some of us were reminded of was the other day when he was in the East Room and he put on his glasses and read from a book -- very rare that he's put on his reading glasses in public. That was exactly the same thing that Nixon did in his final speech to his staff on the day that he left the White House.

Bill Clinton in 1974 when Nixon left was actually running for Congress in Arkansas in his first race. He was hoping to be elected as that first post-Watergate class and he almost made it.

So in Clinton's case, you'd think that having studied Watergate at close range that he would have avoided making a number of the mistakes that Nixon did, but I think he didn't. And perhaps the biggest example of that was when he denied in January having been involved with Ms. Lewinsky; that, I think, will be always remembered by historians and Americans as rather akin to Nixon saying he was not involved in the Watergate coverup.

BOGAVE: Now, what would it take for President Clinton to recover his legacy, should he survive this?

BESCHLOSS: I think the best he could hope for is for historians to say: yes, this is a president who was dogged by scandal throughout his presidency; and, yes, he was one of the few presidents in our history to have done something that was so questionable that it caused him to be in very big danger of impeachment and removal. But at the same time you find in the same man huge skills, huge intelligence, and someone who did some very good things and also presided over a period of prosperity and peace that has been rather unparalleled in this century. So I think the best that Bill Clinton can hope for from historians and later generations of Americans is a mixed verdict.

BOGAVE: Michael Beschloss, I want to thank you so much for spending the hour with us today on FRESH AIR.

BESCHLOSS: Absolutely delighted. Nice to be with you, Barbara.

BOGAVE: Michael Beschloss is a regular commentator on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. His book, "Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes" is just out in paperback.

Coming up, television coverage of the Kenneth Starr report and the Emmys.

This is FRESH AIR.

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


Dateline: Barbara Bogave, Philadelphia
Guest: Michael Beschloss
High: Presidential historian Michael Beschloss talks about the historical importance of the Clinton investigation. Beschloss examines how the threat of impeachment has been used and abused in the past. He is author of "Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes 1963-1964," available in paperback this upcoming week.
Spec: Clinton; Politics; Congress; Government; Michael Beschloss

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: Impeachment, Indiscretions & the American Presidency

Date: SEPTEMBER 14, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 091402NP.217
Head: The Emmys
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:50

BARBARA BOGAVE, HOST: It's been a busy few days on television, with everything from last night's 50th annual Emmy Wards to TV coverage of Kenneth Starr's sexually graphic report to Congress.

TV critic David Bianculli weighs in.

DAVID BIANCULLI, TV CRITIC: Well, what do we talk about first? "Frasier's" Emmys or Clinton's cigars?

To me, there's only one useful and valid point to be made about television's coverage of the Starr Report as it broke on Friday. Because of the length of the report and the sudden way it was released, it turned out to be the first time in history where people could get the news faster from the Internet than from their favorite TV anchors. While CNN and CBS reporters were reading their computer screens to us, and NBC and ABC reporters were referring to their hard copies, viewers could run to their computers and literally read ahead.

I'm somewhat of an idiot when it comes to computers, and even I was able to find the full Starr Report and get to the sections I wanted to read faster than the 10 TV networks I was watching could give it to me. That's a first.

And what was most surprising about this particular first is that MS-NBC, the network co-founded by NBC and Microsoft-founder Bill Gates, was the last to have the Starr report up and running on its Internet site. So much for synergy.

As for the larger issue of such X-rated topics being discussed freely and often gleefully on our most popular mass medium, I don't know what to say, except this: for network news organizations, especially the 24-hour cable networks, and for late night comics, this latest Bill Clinton scandal is a gold mine.

Speaking of gold, last night was the golden anniversary of the Emmy Awards and history was in the making there, too. "Frasier" won its fifth consecutive Emmy as best sitcom, the first comedy ever to do that. And Helen Hunt won another Emmy for "Mad About You," this time winning in the same year she took home an Oscar for "As Good As It Gets." In leading actress categories, that's never been done before, either.

The four-hour Emmy special devoted to honoring TV's past as well as its most recent achievements could have been a lot better. When Julia Louis-Dreyfus of "Seinfeld" introduced Mary Tyler Moore as her idol, or when Kelsey Grammer of "Frasier" talked of the honor of being on the same stage as Dick Van Dyke, that was great. There should have been a lot more cross-generational by-play like that.

The vintage clips, too, could have been edited much better and without that tacky music. But one thing, asking stars to recount their favorite TV moments, resulted in at least one terrific response from Mark Harmon of "Chicago Hope."


MARK HARMON, ACTOR, "CHICAGO HOPE": For me, it's last Monday night, Mark McGwire tying Roger Maris' home run record.


Lifting his son up when he crossed home plate, acknowledging the Maris family when he saw them in the stands, and Roger up above; the close-up of Sammy Sosa in right field applauding; and then the guy who caught the ball saying he didn't want anything -- just wanted to give it back. Perfect, at a time when we need a few heroes.


BIANCULLI: I couldn't agree more. And with Sammy Sosa tying McGwire last night, every game played by Chicago or St. Louis the rest of this season will be thrilling to watch, wherever on TV you can find it.

Just think, McGwire and Sosa have made us excited about baseball again. Maybe someday, by handling themselves with similar skill and class, someone will make us excited about politics again.

BOGAVE: David Bianculli is TV critic for "The New York Daily News."

For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogave.

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


Dateline: Barbara Bogave
Guest: David Bianculli
High: TV critic David Bianculli reviews last night's Emmy Awards.
Spec: Television and Radio; Entertainment; The Emmy Awards
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: The Emmys
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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