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