[This review was published in the Fall 2004 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 493-496.]





The Meaning of Is: The Squandered Impeachment and Wasted Legacy of William Jefferson Clinton

Bob Barr

Stroud & Hall Publishers, 2004


          Bob Barr is a former U. S. Attorney and prosecutor who from 1995 to 2003 represented Georgia’s 7th District in the U. S. House of Representatives.  He was a senior member of the Judiciary Committee at the time of the Clinton impeachment, and served as one of the “House impeachment managers” for the trial in the Senate.

          His book The Meaning of Is is an important addition to the book by David Schippers, Sellout: The Inside Story of President Clinton’s Impeachment.  Schippers saw the impeachment from much the same vantage-point as Barr, since Schippers was the Chief Investigative Counsel for the Republican majority of the House Judiciary Committee.

          The significance of both books is made clear when Barr reminds us that the Clinton legacy is almost certain to be defined, at least in the short run, by today’s dominant coterie of professional and academic historians, four hundred of whom signed a statement opposing the impeachment.  Barr says “the individuals who will write much of the history of the Clinton administration are completely devoid of objectivity.”  He says “these are the self-styled ‘intellectual giants’ who occupy posh distinguished chairs in academic ivory towers around the country.”  One such historian Barr cites is Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who called Kenneth Starr “America’s No. 1 pornographer” because Starr, as the appointed independent counsel, detailed the Lewinsky affair in his report to Congress.  Barr sees his own book as helping to “keep the record straight” about the Clinton years.

          It isn’t altogether clear that Barr is correct in thinking the Clinton legacy will be recounted in a heavily favorable way.  An interesting thing has happened to the memory of John F. Kennedy during the more than four decades since his assassination: to be sure, much of the popular media continue the “Camelot” myth; but a great deal has come to light from insiders about Kennedy’s behavior, both as to his adultery and his relations with mob figures.  There, the “court historians” have not permanently defined the JFK image.  One suspects that much the same will happen with William Jefferson Clinton.

          Schippers and Barr were of like mind in having wanted the impeachment inquiry to go far beyond the Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky episodes.  Barr in particular emphasizes that there were stronger grounds for impeachment in the damage Barr sees Clinton as having done to national security, in the misuse of the presidency, and in the undermining of civil liberties.  Barr’s book goes into considerable detail about each, and this provides much of its substance. 

          “National security,” he says, “remains the foremost reason Bill Clinton should have been impeached and removed.”  “Not only did Bill Clinton take campaign contributions from agents of foreign governments, but he also gave at least one of them a top job at the Department of Commerce. The now-infamous name of this particular individual is John Huang.  Huang got his job because he raised massive amounts of cash – more than one million dollars – for Bill Clinton.  As was later discovered, much of this money was illegally laundered foreign cash.”  Red China conducted espionage that sought nuclear parity with the United States, obtained the illegal transfer of missile technology and the easing of export restrictions on technology, and (according to the bipartisan commission headed by congressman Chris Cox, as stated by Barr), “obtained computer models, guidance system designs, and virtually every cutting-edge technology needed to construct world-class nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles.”   National security was further compromised by the administration’s active opposition to security checks on White House personnel, as detailed by FBI agent Gary Aldrich, who served inside the White House at the end of the George H. W. Bush administration and the beginning of Clinton’s first term, in his own book, Unlimited Access.  Moreover, access was sold for campaign contributions: “One of the worst such cases,” Barr says, “was that of Jorge ‘Gordito’ Cabrera of Miami.  Cabrera was a top cocaine trafficker for Colombian drug cartels,” who had made a “large donation of campaign cash.”

          The book recounts various of the ways Barr sees abuse of the presidential office.  These include the hurried naturalization of one million immigrants immediately before the 1996 election to enlarge the Democratic electorate, with a fifth not receiving the required FBI checks; the use of the American military to direct attention away from Clinton’s troubles; the solicitation of campaign contributions from government offices (which, Barr says, is a widely observed legally-imposed taboo); the violation of election spending caps; the obstruction of the investigation following the death of Vince Foster (even though Barr himself concludes the death was a suicide); the White House Travel Office cronyism scandal; and a systematic obstruction of justice in the Whitewater scandal.

          The attack on civil liberties, Barr argues, was apparent in the misuse of confidential FBI files about hundreds of Republicans; the political use of the Internal Revenue Service to cause several conservative think tanks to be audited; the egregious misconduct in the Waco disaster, and its subsequent cover-up; the “unjustified force resulting in the deaths of Americans” at Ruby Ridge; and the vastly disproportionate use of force in the Elian Gonzalez case.

          The items listed in these categories don’t exhaust the misconduct that pertains to Clinton’s legacy, since they don’t include such matters as the last-minute presidential pardons or the systematic vandalism that did so much damage in the White House as the Clintons moved out.  These came too late to have been possible grounds for impeachment.  Nor do they enumerate the various charges of sexual harassment and abuse, such as from Kathleen Wiley and Juanita Broaddrick.

          A number of reasons came together, Barr says, to prevent including the many earlier abuses in the grounds for impeachment, which both he and Schippers passionately wanted to do.  Most specifically, the Republicans waited too long for the Starr Report (which wasn’t filed with the Congress until September 9, 1998) and placed too exclusive a reliance upon it.  The Report was limited to detailing a legal case of perjury and obstruction in the Lewinsky and Jones affairs.  Barr explains that “if we extended the inquiry long enough to achieve a full investigation, it would run into the next Congress, forcing us [the Judiciary Committee]  to obtain new authority and funding from a body with new members… -- clearly an unlikely scenario.”  Thus, did the “political side of impeachment – the more operative side… – come to be essentially ignored.”

          There were other forces at work, as well, according to Barr.  For a number of reasons going back to 1995, the Republican leadership lost its morale and will to lead, which led it to prefer to leave Clinton in office to “end his term as a crippled president.”   For their part, the Democrats produced a solidarity not unlike that of a Leninist party; and Attorney General Janet Reno successfully dragged her feet at critical junctures.

          It all amounted, as the sub-title to Barr’s book states, to a “squandered impeachment and wasted legacy of William Jefferson Clinton.”    It is likely that scholars and political commentators (perhaps a future William Shakespeare) will long find it to  hold much grist for thought.  This is especially so because the whole episode so greatly holds up a mirror to American society.


                                                                                               Dwight D. Murphey