Accountability: The Fall of Bill Clinton

Ch. 1: White House, January 25, 1998
Accountability: The Fall of Bill Clinton

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January 25, 1998

It was going to be a relatively nice day, the high near 45. Sunday traffic was lighter in D.C., not that it mattered for the President’s motorcade. But despite having the ultimate right of way, it was still a few minutes behind schedule. Erskine Bowles was puttering in the lobby, honestly enjoying the brief respite. To say the previous few days were crazy was an understatement. Being White House Chief of Staff, arguably the second most powerful position in the country, Bowles had different tolerance levels than most people for stress, but this was of a different caliber.

The break was over when the black limousine rolled to a stop out front. Salutes from the Marine Guard signaled the President’s arrival as the doors opened. It almost smelled like spring. With him was Ron Klain, not unexpected but still a wrinkle. “Good morning, Mr. President. They’re waiting for you in the Oval Office.” Bowles strode along the President, who was giving his coat to his bagman.

“So, what do we expect to hear from them?” he said in his accent, different from Bowles’s own slight twang.

Bowles flipped open his notebook. “Well, we floated several names. If I had to short list it, I’d go with Pryor, Chiles, or Nunn. DeConcini, Wofford, and Schaefer seem less likely. Senators like other Senators. I’d say we’re good with all of them.”

The President stopped walking, “Chiles? Didn’t he heart surgery over a decade ago?”

“He's doing a good job as Governor now, and he was a Senator. The entire point of this list, sir, is to appoint somebody who can do the job but doesn’t want it. The list skews… greyer for that reason. You told me the goal was not to rock the boat. To be frank, unless we want to make it a fight, Republicans are holding all the cards on this.” Bowles had learned the blunt truth was best.

“Jesus,” the President sighed then kept walking, "We couldn't win a fight, not now." Klain was still following. They were almost to the Oval Office.

“Sir, Ron,” Bowles had to be blunt again, “it would be best if, Ron, you waited outside. We want to go in there like it is business as usual in the Oval.” There was an awkward pause before they agreed. Ron split off towards the private office.

The Oval Office was quiet, unusual for a room full of politicians. It had been a loud few weeks in Washington but enough had been said by then. Divided by party, Democrats and Republicans avoided making eye contact after the curt pleasantries. The room was a little cramp with the leadership of both houses of Congress stuffed on the furniture. Their staff had to wait in the Roosevelt Room.

Tom Daschle stared holes into the side of the Speaker’s head as he was whispering something to Trent Lott. “Anything we need to know over here?” Daschle asked, a clenched jaw betraying his level tone.

Speaker Gingrich turned and replied, “No… just chatting.” Gingrich looked like the cat who caught the canary. He then added, “Your guy is late” with a head gesture towards the empty Resolute Desk. Armey thought the symbolism was a good touch.

“Our guy is the President,” Daschle retorted.

Gingrich refrained from rolling his eyes at the Minority Leader’s emphasis. “Well… he’s still late.”

As if summoned, the door opened and in walked the President, followed by Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles. The relatively youthful President looked drained and tired from recent events. “Please be seated,” he requested, even though the room had barely attempted to stand in his presence. “Sorry to keep you waiting, but I hope we can be quick.” He circled around to the Resolute Desk but didn’t sit.

Nods of agreement were shared across the room. “I think we can be,” Daschle replied, “do our friends across the room agree?”

Lott confirmed, “Yes, Mr. President,” making the honorific sound like an insult.

President Al Gore had heard dozens of names suggested over the past few days. Even his predecessor had offered his opinion on the matter, unsolicited. Gore wondered if he had made a cursed wish, like on a monkey paw or something. He was President, but it had to be in the crudest way possible. “Thanks again Bill…" he thought while standing by the Resolute desk.

“Well, alright, who’s going to be Vice President then?” he asked.
 
I've got an idea: Bob Graham. He was a popular governor and Senator from Florida at this time, and he was on Clinton's shortlist for VP in 1992--he was also on Gore's shortlist for VP in 2000 (and, IMO, if he'd gotten the VP slot instead of Joe Lieberman, Gore would have won Florida)...

So, what happened to make Clinton resign ITTL?
 
I've got an idea: Bob Graham. He was a popular governor and Senator from Florida at this time, and he was on Clinton's shortlist for VP in 1992--he was also on Gore's shortlist for VP in 2000 (and, IMO, if he'd gotten the VP slot instead of Joe Lieberman, Gore would have won Florida)...

So, what happened to make Clinton resign ITTL?
The MeToo movement starts 20 years earlier?
 
The POD will be upcoming, thanks for the interest.

Recent events have made me think about Presidential truthfulness and how much of our current political climate really sprung out of the Clinton scandals, especially his affair with Lewinsky.
 
The POD will be upcoming, thanks for the interest.

Recent events have made me think about Presidential truthfulness and how much of our current political climate really sprung out of the Clinton scandals, especially his affair with Lewinsky.
For VP, an interesting and hipster choice could be Warren Buffett.
 
An incredible start. I thought that it was going to be Clinton replacing Al for some reason in the midst of impeachment a la Agnew. Got caught off guard when it said “President Gore.”
 
An incredible start. I thought that it was going to be Clinton replacing Al for some reason in the midst of impeachment a la Agnew. Got caught off guard when it said “President Gore.”
Oh that could've been an interesting take, but Gore's fundraising matters were never on the same level of Agnew (who was literally getting handed bags of money in the White House). The Nixon-Clinton photo was supposed to hint at resignation.
 
Oh that could've been an interesting take, but Gore's fundraising matters were never on the same level of Agnew (who was literally getting handed bags of money in the White House). The Nixon-Clinton photo was supposed to hint at resignation.
Yeah I don't know that there's really any reason for Gore to go down, I guess I just assumed it because it said Bill's name in the title. Was definitely just not thinking ahead, but it worked out for a good surprise for me haha
 
Ch 2: Jan. 16 and After, POD
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January 16, 1998



One of the FBI agents paused before entering the room and turned to Linda Tripp, stopping her outside of the Ritz-Carlton hotel room. “Thank you, but we will take it from here.”

She opened her mouth to object, wanting to be part of the conversation (interrogation?) that was about to happen, but no words came to mind. She had forgotten the agent’s name. “What should I do?”

“Head home. If we need anything, we will be in touch,” he said with a close of the door. Through the closing gap, a burning stare was emanating from her former friend. She hovered outside the hotel room door for a moment. Then, with a sigh, Tripp did just that.

---

When Michael Isikoff at Newsweek broke the news of the Special Counsel’s expanded scope of the President, and Monica Lewinsky’s cooperation in the matter, it arguably became the largest story ever first published on the Internet. First released overnight on Newsweek’s AOL hosted website, the site had previously only been used to publish articles in the week after the hard copy was distributed. The editors were worried nobody would read it online first, so they faxed it to other news organizations for visibility. It gained traction online and on television Sunday January 18th, and by the end of the day basically the entire country had learned about the incredible, new allegations against the President.

President Clinton himself had just given a deposition in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case the day before. Bowles recalled him returning to the White House seemingly focused and unfazed. But in that deposition, he denied having a sexual relation with Lewinsky. The Newsweek article detailing the new scope of Ken Starr’s investigation included the detail Lewinsky apparently lied herself in the Jones case but was given immunity for cooperation with Starr. Isikoff's story was seconded by the less reputable Drudge Report online, then The Washington Post on Monday, January 19th. While given just a small line of the overall article, the public immediately latched on to the reporting that Lewinsky was in possession of DNA evidence of the President, a stained dress from one of their encounters.

The White House was spinning after the bombshell, but head speechwriter Michael Waldman and most of the policy staff aimed to lock themselves away from the chaos. The State of the Union was next week, and the actual work of the Clinton Administration still needed to move forward. While John Podesta had cloistered a team to focus on the emergency news at hand, Waldman and others outside of the inner circle followed the lead of Bowles and Sylvia Mathews, trying to focus on the day-to-day work.

Podesta immediately kicked into gear. Sleazy rumors around Clinton were not new, and the “secretary of shit” handled what he could. But Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles was visibly upset and sapped of energy after the recent news, as were many other of the more idealistic or squeamish staffers. The President denied everything to all peoples, but there was more to the scandal than just the affair. Clinton allegedly had tried to use his office to get Monica Lewinsky a job elsewhere in the government, potentially as part of a coverup. The first open break in the Administration was from Ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson. Richardson, on a call with the White House Monday the 19th, said he was going to publicly admit that Clinton indirectly tried to get Lewinsky a job in his office. Richardson was beginning to explain in fuller detail when Bowles broke out saying “I don’t want to know a fucking thing about it! Don’t tell me about it!”

Vice President Al Gore felt the same way. The friendship between Clinton and Gore was genuine. Gore was visibly disgusted but said he believed Clinton when he said he denied the rumors. From Monday to Wednesday, the White House and Eisenhower Executive Office were full of people having hushed conversations that were punctured by shouting matches. Democratic leaders from the Hill tried to get in and figure out what was happening. Clinton was denying the reports. Close observers saw some slick language in his public comments though. In an interview with NPR, for example, he denied any affair or relationship in the present tense, not past tense.

Inside the White House though, The President’s famous ability to compartmentalize had broken. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit was terribly timed. Clinton turned to his closer informal advisors, shutting out most policy. Unknown to many, Mark Penn had a direct line to the President and trying to feed him his own personal polling and spin on the matters. But the closet advisor to the President, as always, was the First Lady. Details of what exactly happened are fuzzy, but late Wednesday night the 21st, deep in the middle of another crisis meeting, Bill and Hillary went up to the residence together and came back down with their decision. Vice President Gore came over after despite the late hour, and the two men talked alone in the Oval Office.

Waldman found out about Clinton’s resignation like most of the country did in the morning news on Thursday the 22nd. He rushed to the office. Once there he wasn’t sure what to do, most of the staff seemed to be acting the same way. He had devoted basically every waking hour of recent memory to the State of the Union. His offer to help on Clinton’s resignation speech was declined; the President wanted to do it himself. Eventually he got a call from Eli Atte, Gore’s speechwriter. The Vice President still planned on keeping the Address next week, for the sake of normalcy. Atte said was coming over to help retrofit the speech to Gore.

Clinton addressed the country Thursday night from the East Hall. He wore the suit from his 1992 inauguration. Paul Begala nixed the idea of having it from the Oval Office. They wanted to make sure to avoid any Nixon imagery. It was a good call. Waldman watched from around a corner. President Clinton’s final address to the nation was well received publicly and by the West Wing staff. While admitting personal failures, ‘Slick Willy’ skirted any responsibility with regards to how he may have abused the powers of his office. He focused on his achievements - the economy, budget, America’s position as the sole superpower, and implored the country to unify behind Gore as President. He apologized for personal failures, implying more than one, and those he may have hurt, but the speech also cast Clinton as a victim, targeted by his political enemies. The Starr investigation was still ongoing, after all. The initial reaction by the Republican Party was sheer glee. They had taken down the President, one they saw as immoral and unfit for the role.

The next day, Friday, there were a lot of hangovers in the building. President Clinton gave one last address to the staff in the morning. He almost lost his composure. After recovering, he tendered his official resignation letter to Attorney General Reno. At 12:01pm, in the Map Room, Gore took the Oath of Office, administered by Chief Justice Rehnquist. Gore walked his friend to the door but not outside to Marine One. Clinton walked into the helicopter with his wife and daughter, and they left. He didn’t wave goodbye, only turning around to take one last look. Gore gave a short speech afterwards that was carried live on television. Atte was already scratching a draft for it after he got over the shock of Clinton’s resignation. Like Ford before him, Gore stressed that this was the constitutional order as expected. The President was calm and steady, his persona being an advantage in this turbulent moment. He said he share more about his vision at next week’s State of the Union.

An all Cabinet meeting had been scheduled for the 23rd before the resignation, Gore kept it on the books. Business as usual would continue. Gore had been the most involved Vice President ever, and he would demonstrate he could do the job even on literal day one.

Atte and Waldman spent most of this time locked away with other communication staff to rework the State of the Union. President Gore would ask for status updates and review the speech, but most of his time was coordinating with Congress and Governors, calming nerves, and trying to figure out who would be his Vice President. At some point, Atte realized he technically still worked for the office of the Vice President, which was vacant. It was midday Sunday the 25th when Gore told them he wanted to announce his choice for Vice President at the State of the Union.

Come Tuesday evening, President Gore was pacing small circles in a Senate side room, waiting for his debut. Tipper gave him a kiss and left for her seat with the guest of honor. The speech’s meat and potatoes were essentially what Clinton had planned, with the length cut down - billions in social programs to be paid for by closing loopholes and new tobacco taxes, reinvesting in Social Security, etc. A lot of work had gone into balancing the budget, and now maybe they could do something with it. More important to the moment, though, was the pomp and circumstance. Unelected, the President’s reception by Congress was critical for his legitimacy. Later Gore would admit that he didn’t feel like President until he was announced through those doors to applause.

Behind Gore sat Senator Strom Thurmond and Speaker Gingrich, highlighting the divided government and that the Vice Presidency vacant. With the viewing audience surpassing Clinton’s 1993 number, the speech was reviewed as calming for the country. Some commentators said that ‘boredom’ might just be what D.C. and country needed. Gore’s aim was to keep the ship steady on the popular policies of Clinton without the personal drama. The scene of Senator Thurmond, 95 years old, almost nodding off to sleep several times during the speech added a helpful distraction and fodder for late night hosts. The news had leaked before the address, but the nominee for Vice President was made apparent as he sat next newly minted First Lady in the balcony. It was given a cursory comment at the beginning, but the penultimate paragraph of Gore’s speech was directed at the elephant in the room:

“I know that I have assumed this office not through popular mandate, but by constitutional process. In this moment, I recall the words of President Ford, in that I took ‘the same oath that was taken by George Washington and by every President under the Constitution’ as well. The smooth and peaceful transition of power, especially in unusual circumstances, is a tribute to our laws and traditions. The strength of American democracy is shown most clearly through the difficulties it can overcome. The office of the President shall always be larger and more important than just one man. As we move forward together in these next few days and months, and as we as a nation move forward into the next millennium, I promise directly to you, my fellow Americans, to faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States and uphold the Constitution which makes such peaceful transitions possible.” Applause.

It was a subtle rebuke to his predecessor and the never-ending scandal that had followed him. With an election in November, Gore would have to walk a tightrope between keeping those who had elected a different man happy, avoiding the same fate of constant scrutiny, and setting his own agenda. Gore had all of that in mind when he said, “It is in the name of unity that I will be nominating Secretary William Cohen to be the next Vice President of the United States.”

---

January 25, 1998

Lott replied, “From my caucus’s position, and I think Newt would agree with me here, we believe Secretary Cohen is best positioned to heal the nation.” Speaker Newt Gingrich nodded, “Yes.”

President Gore kept his poker face. “Where’d that come from? He wasn’t on our, I mean, my, list.” It was true. Bill Cohen was not on the short list the White House had circled on Capitol Hill.

“Now wait a minute,” Daschle interjected, caught off guard as well, “what the hell are you two trying to pull? Now you want to put a Republican next in line to be President?”

“Come the State of the Union, you’ll see two men sitting behind the President,” Gingrich argued, “Thurmond and myself. There’s two Republicans right now in line for President, and the first is 95 years old. We need somebody who can move through the process fast, in both Houses, Houses controlled by Republicans. Cohen was confirmed unanimously for Defense Secretary last year. If he was good enough to run the Pentagon for Democrats, I don’t see why he can’t take a do-nothing job like Vice President… no offense.”

“There’s no way the President will accept this,” Gephardt claimed.

“I can speak for myself, thank you,” rebutted Gore. He let a pause silence the room. The chaos of the past few news cycles needed to die down, quick. Gore knew Cohen well; he was levelheaded in the Senate and his year at the Pentagon had gone well. He glanced to Bowles who was leaning on the curved wall behind the seated leadership, visibly weary, who gave subtle nod of approval. Cohen it would be.

“Well… alright. We’ll give Bill a call and ask him if he wants to be Vice President. He may turn me down. For the sake of the country, let’s make this quick and easy, yes? Apparently, Ford took eleven days to appoint Rockefeller, but stuff moves a lot faster these days, as we’ve all seen in the past week.” He again got nods from the room, if that was at all reassuring. “Good. Thank you all.”

Al Gore exited to a half-hearted chorus of “Thank you, Mr. President.”

Having been President less than 72 hours, Gore left the Oval to go back to the Vice President’s office to make to confer with Ron and Eskine, then make the calls. Most of his stuff was still there.
 
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Some notes...

So the POD is when Linda Tripp set-up Monica Lewinsky to be detained, for lack of a better word, by the FBI and Starr's office, she does not enter the room with them. It was seen as odd in reflection that she would sit in on the interview. If Tripp didn't join, perhaps Lewinsky would've felt more pliable before she could get in touch with her mom or council. Lewinsky was still treated in probably an unprofessional way.

The fact that Lewinsky was cooperating and admitting to the matter gives more heft and validation to Michael Isikoff's story, which IOTL Newsweek refuse to run. The details about the internet publishing were all real concerns at the time. IOTL, Drudge was the first to publish the matter and instantly tainted the story as right-wing smear, despite the Post confirming it soon after. The 'blue dress' was known about that week IOTL, but sort of got buried in the initial reporting and didn't really break until Lewinsky's eventual cooperation.

Benjamin Netenyahu really was in DC when that story first broke. Richardson really did have the first crack in administration support, and Bowles was mortified about the scandal the entire time. The 1/23 Cabinet meeting IOTL was notable for the strong denials from the likes of Albright and other Cabinet members.

So, ITTL, the news breaks a bit earlier, with a more reputable source, with Lewinsky's cooperation and more details confirmed earlier. The total pressure is greater and snowballs the initial impact. I chose this point mostly because of the podcast Slow Burn. Its descriptions of Lewinsky's detainment and how close things were to tipping early were really evocative. Eli Atte in a brief interview for it also recalled how that week, basically everyone assumed Clinton was going to resign, that there was no way for him to survive.

To give a peek behind the kimono, I have ~35,000 words written of a rough draft through about 2020 ITTL, to varying degree of detail. My first draft had Sam Nunn as the choice for Vice President, but I changed it to Cohen in review, mostly for story reasons. What is noted above is true, that Gore and Cohen had a good working relationship, but more importantly he had gone through the extensive vetting for Defense Secretary and would be acceptable to the establishment of both parties. There will be those who disapprove and defect from confirmation, more notably for Democrats.
 
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Kinda would have thought it would have taken one of the rape allegations popping up to force Clinton out.

A Clinton resignation though would have lots of effects of American politics for sure.
 
Kinda would have thought it would have taken one of the rape allegations popping up to force Clinton out.

A Clinton resignation though would have lots of effects of American politics for sure.
While I believe Juanita Broaddrick’s allegations and thought about that, I don't think that would be covered much different than OTL. Given her history of peddling with Republican aligned actors previously, her reliability would be equally maligned, I believe. I went with this POD given some comments of why the mainstream media of the day covered Lewisnky and Starr differently. It wasn't just gross tabloid behavior, it was potential abuse of office, a more typical thing for them to cover.

Here's Isikoff from an interview last year:

https://www.history.com/news/lewinsky-affair-bill-clinton-impeachment-blue-dress-linda-tripp

What convinced you that this was an important story to pursue—and more than just the tawdry tabloid fodder that critics later accused it of being?

One of the jobs the President was helping [Lewinsky] get was with the U.N. ambassador, Bill Richardson. He set up a meeting where Richardson met with her at the Watergate Hotel for several hours. This was a federal job. So the President was getting his girlfriend a federal job, [someone] who he’s had a sexual relationship with at a time that he’s being asked questions in the [Paula Jones] lawsuit about his relationship with various women. There were things that were grounds for suspicion and we wanted to keep an eye on it. But it’s important to realize, we never knew whether we would have a story to publish or whether this would ultimately prove the relationship. There were lots of questions.

What changed all that were the astonishing events of January 13th, 1998, when I get tipped off that there’s this little event going on at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, and that Ken Starr has wired Linda Tripp for her conversation with Monica Lewinsky. Ken Starr, the Independent Counsel, is investigating this? Using the powers of the FBI and the Independent Counsel’s office to conduct a sting on the President’s girlfriend? That’s the story. That’s what elevated it into a whole new plane.
 
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I am interested in seeing how you develop this timeline. I remember those years as a time when many thing were going well. Then came 9/11 and America took a totally different course.
 
Amen to the above poster. Clinton resigning puts a darker tone to the nineties.

In many ways the nineties were our generations roaring twenties.

Then came the next decade.
 
Bill Clinton announcing his resignation prior to the SOTU. Wonder if Gore will pardon Bill and how it will affect the 1998 Midterms.
 
Bill Clinton announcing his resignation prior to the SOTU. Wonder if Gore will pardon Bill and how it will affect the 1998 Midterms.
I appreciate the interest.
As the POD betrays, Clinton falls early. What this TL may reflect on is an America that exists without the long shadow that that fight still casts on the country.
 
Ch. 3: Settling In
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After five years as Vice President, there was no doubt that Al Gore was as prepared as possible to fulfill the Presidency on ‘day one’. That being said, no one is really prepared. The office does not work like history’s recollection of it, with timelines of events laid out in clear succession, issues divided into ‘foreign’ and ‘domestic’. It all happens all at once. Immediately, Gore had to grapple with Iraq, Russia, Social Security, tax reform, the looming midterms, and the most salacious political scandal since Alexander Hamilton.

The first major pushback Gore faced was over his selection of Vice President, William Cohen. Gephardt’s comment in the Oval Office betrayed what became a bigger concern – a backlash from the Democratic base. The first major action Gore was trying to take in office was a sell-out of the party. The fact that it was unexpected or unconsidered by Gore spoke to mindset of the moment. While Cohen was a Republican moderate, for example being relatively pro-choice, he was still to the right of the Democratic caucus on most issues. President Gore and Cohen came to the agreement that Cohen would not publicly defend administration policies he did not genuinely support. While Clinton-Gore had been an effective tag-team for 7 years, Gore would not have the assumed backing of his Vice President on political matters.

The Cohen Senate hearings began in the in February and would be brief, but there was a larger revolt was in the House. Minority Leader Gephardt publicly supported the President, there was little effort to convince those skeptical in the caucus by House leadership. The White House went into overtime to back the President’s choice. Even Gore was frustrated by the issue, having his choice forced by the Republican majorities. After his Senate hearings, Cohen’s appointment was buoyed by an unexpected group – the Congressional Black Caucus. William Cohen’s wife, Janet Langhart, was a black woman. Langhart, a journalist, was known in DC circles and had a visible role, being dubbed the “First Lady of the Pentagon”. Langhart had sat behind her husband during the long sessions and an image of them embracing in the hearing room was seen across the country. The CBC decided that having Langhart as Second Lady would be a powerful symbol of racial change in the country.

While the Cohen hearings were happening, Republicans on the Hill and in the media were having a bit of a victory lap. But almost immediately they started asking “What did Gore know and when did he know it?” The Independent Counsel Ken Starr’s investigation was on-going, as was the Jones harassment suit. Gore had to immediately separate himself from any supposed wrongdoing that may have been happened. Through February, polling seemed favorable and the public of the opinion that Gore was not involved in Clinton’s shenanigans. The public persona of Gore, strait-laced and stiff, likely helped him dramatically in those early weeks. The National Prayer Breakfast on February 5th served as an excellent forum for Gore to praise family values and express his faith.

That same day, Ken Starr held a press conference, saying that the investigation was “moving very quickly” and that he expected a swift conclusion. Public polling showed a swift swing against his investigation. No decisions on prosecution against the now ex-President had been made, though. In the public relation wars, Clinton saw a sympathetic surge of approval out of office, and by 2 to 1 margin Americans said the Starr investigation should end now that Clinton resigned.

Without the cover of executive privilege, Clinton staffers like Sidney Blumenthal rapidly gave close door testimonies to the grand jury. By April, Starr submitted his report to House Judiciary Committee. While Clinton had committed actions that abused his office and were potential federal crimes, he decided to refrain from prosecution given his resignation. Ken Starr had motivated reasoning – he was eager to leave the important, but frankly grimy, work behind him and was in line to be the next dean at Pepperdine University Law School, and perhaps had one foot out the door. The House soon released the full report to the public on the internet by the end of April. While juicy and sensational, with Clinton already out of office, the Gore Administration looked to move past it quickly. The legal trouble was not over for Clinton, however, as the Jones harassment case was still an open and serious matter.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world kept spinning. Gore’s first days in office were met with a noticeable drop in the S&P 500 and NASDAQ Composite. This mimicked the October 27, 1997 mini-crash and they returned to positive territory by the State of the Union. The economy was strong but there was always room for improvement. Al Gore had arguably been the most influential modern Vice President, with strong influence and domestic and foreign policy. But now he was the Commander-in-Chief, with all the added pressures.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s visit was Gore’s first high profile opportunity for statecraft. The Good Friday Agreement, which Clinton championed, would demonstrate America’s continued soft power abroad. Gore’s strong ties with Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin gave him a springboard towards strengthening ties with the former chief geopolitical rival, although the Ruble crisis brought uncertainties. The situation in the Balkans was still heated as Yugoslavia and its region Kosovo continued to clash, requiring active management with Europe and the Russians. Above all, the containment of Iraq would require close management. In the State of the Union, Gore had outlined Saddam Hussein’s continued efforts to obtain nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. But Hussein’s ambitions were controlled. Gore praised the United Nation’s efforts in containing those efforts and pledged continued US support. Despite the drama at home, the United States’ standing in the world remained strong and the federal budget was on target to run a surplus for the first time since the 1960s.

With the Starr investigation winding down, there was now enough air to stoke the flames of another. Since the 1996 election, a controversy had been nipping at the Democratic party, especially Gore. First prominently raised by a Los Angeles Times article, the possible effort of the Chinese to influence the Democratic Party gained new attention. In particular, fundraisers and donations were supposedly being funded from the People’s Republic of China directly to the Democrats in exchange for political favoritism.

It had been a sideshow of the continual “Clinton Wars” that had plagued the administration since inauguration. Being convoluted and boring compared to Clinton’s misdeeds, the scandal had not really garnered the same headlines. It was also a more complicated story, and some of the actors were associated with both Democratic and Republican officials like former Speaker Gingrich. The Republican House and Senate both had open investigations, as did the Justice Department. The House effort, led by Rep. Dan Burton, was largely seen as a farce, costing more than the Watergate investigation and producing few results. Burton would be further discredited after his own affair (resulting in a child out of wedlock) was made public.

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The Senate investigation by the Committee on Governmental Affairs, on the other hand, made a bigger splash. Led by Senator Fred Thompson, former actor and from Gore’s home state of Tennessee, the Senate had maintained some more gravitas and sincerity in its efforts. Thompson immediately seized on the opportunity of additional media coverage when publishing the committee report in March. It was split down party lines, 8 to 7, with Senator John Glenn submitting a minority report for the Democrats. While, the report seemed to exonerate Gore of any explicit wrongdoing, Thompson used his new platform to lecture the country about the ‘unsavory character’ of the Democratic Party. While Clinton was gone, the rot was still there, seemed to be the message, with all eyes on the November midterm elections. Gore cancelled a trip to China that Clinton had been planning due to mounting political pressure. In June, the Justice Department would internally recommend an independent counsel to further investigate any alleged fund-raising abuses. This was refused by Attorney General Janet Reno.

William Cohen was eventually sworn-in as Vice President of the United States in early April. Only the crankiest voices on the left were still complaining about it. With Cohen in place and the Starr investigation winding down, Gore finally felt like he had some breathing room.

When it became the “Gore White House,” the entire staff had been picked by Clinton, albeit often with Gore’s input. Gore knew that he had to simultaneously maintain the status quo of an effective Executive Office and change enough to make it is his own. Messaging these changes would be just as important as the changes themselves. He had to clean house without looking like he was kicking anybody out, even if they were doing just that. Clinton’s Executive Office had been operating with two effective divisions – those managing scandal and those actually managing governance. Gore wanted to end that.

The first change was immediate as he brought on his Chief of Staff Ron Klain as a Special Advisor, with the obvious intent to move him to White House Chief of Staff when there was an opening. Franklin Raines’ resignation as Director of the Office of Management and Budget gave that opportunity. Erskine Bowles, who had proved effective at budget negotiations, slid over to OMB and Klain became Chief of Staff. Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations John Podesta, to not be sidelined, moved to White House Counsel after Charles Ruff resigned to private practice and provide legal services to private citizen Bill Clinton.

Two moves were also soon possible for his Cabinet. Secretary of Energy Federico Peña resigned in early June. Gore tapped the Deputy Elizabeth Moler to lead the department, which was welcomed internally as Peña was seen as an outsider and not fit for the role. The bigger break would come when Attorney General Janet Reno would resign in a few weeks later, supposedly on request from the President. Gore expected the move would make his administration appear more open and transparent. Reno had been a target of repeated attacks by Republicans. As a symbol of Clinton stonewalling, rightly or wrongly, her departure was supposed to be seen as a fresh start. In addition, it would give Gore the opportunity to highlight his own personal agenda by nominating Deputy AG Eric Holder as her replacement.

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It was not an uncontroversial move. Democrats like James Carville said he was being a pushover. Republicans, although happy to see Reno gone, still publicly chastised the President for playing politics with the Justice Department. The Republican Senate seemed unwilling to even vote on the matter until July 24, when a gunman opened fire in the Capitol building, killing two United States Capitol Police officers. In a move of perhaps crass politicization, some Republicans realized that hamstringing the Justice Department after such a high-profile incident was not a good look and acquiesced. Holder was hammered in his hearings over his stands on affirmative action and other ‘special interest’ liberal positions but was undeniably qualified for the role and eventually was confirmed.

While the machinations of domestic life continued, America’s apparent invulnerability after the Cold War on the world stage would be challenged.
 
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