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.