What it’s like work­ing in the White House dur­ing im­peach­ment

The Morning Call - - TOWN SQUARE - By Joe Lock­hart

The pe­riod in early De­cem­ber 1998 just be­fore the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives im­peached Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton has been on my mind lately. I’ve been think­ing about those few weeks, the most har­row­ing of my ca­reer, ever since House Democrats an­nounced they would launch a for­mal im­peach­ment in­quiry against Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. While I may not be root­ing for Trump, I have a keen sense of what his staff is go­ing through right now.

An im­peach­ment in­quiry ex­ac­er­bates all the stresses and anx­i­eties that al­ready ex­ist in any White House. The me­dia mag­ni­fies the slight­est de­vel­op­ment; dire pre­dic­tions of im­mi­nent demise are com­mon­place. As press sec­re­tary — a per­ilous job dur­ing nor­mal times — I per­son­ally felt the pres­sure to not make a mis­take from the podium, with ev­ery word I spoke an­a­lyzed for both real and hid­den mean­ings.

Through­out, mem­bers of the press breathed down our necks, sniff­ing for any ma­te­rial that could help them char­ac­ter­ize “the mood in the White House.” John Podesta, the chief of staff, had made clear, us­ing quite col­or­ful lan­guage, that he didn’t want peo­ple talk­ing about im­peach­ment. Not in meet­ings, not at the prover­bial wa­ter cooler and es­pe­cially not out in pub­lic, even with fam­ily and friends. It was dif­fi­cult to go through this pe­riod al­ways be­ing watched, and al­ways pre­tend­ing it wasn’t hap­pen­ing.

De­spite Podesta’s ad­mo­ni­tion, the few staffers work­ing on im­peach­ment — mostly lawyers and com­mu­ni­ca­tions staff like me — were con­stantly be­ing asked what was go­ing on. Ev­ery­one lived off ru­mors and sec­ond­hand in­for­ma­tion, study­ing the body lan­guage of the pres­i­dent and se­nior staffers.

Sev­eral times a day, col­leagues dropped by my of­fice to “see how I was do­ing.” No one got much sleep. Once, I re­mem­ber work­ing un­til about 4 in the morn­ing, getting about an hour’s rest, and then my wife sud­denly wak­ing me up in the shower. I had been stand­ing un­der the wa­ter, fast asleep.

We all de­vel­oped a cer­tain gal­lows hu­mor. Bad jokes flew around: “If you see the vice pres­i­dent, tell him it looks like he’s lost weight. He’ll re­mem­ber you when he starts fill­ing out his staff.”

Per­haps the defin­ing aspect of this pe­riod was its sheer un­pre­dictabil­ity. The best way to de­scribe the ex­pe­ri­ence is by re­call­ing the day the pres­i­dent was im­peached: Dec. 19, 1998. It was as nor­mal a Satur­day as you could ex­pect, know­ing that the vote was com­ing. We knew the out­come, and we had a strat­egy. We would say this was all par­ti­san, and the pres­i­dent would stay fo­cused on the peo­ple’s busi­ness.

Sim­ple. Peo­ple in the ad­min­is­tra­tion be­lieved it, and that was our mes­sage for that day.

Then, just be­fore noon, Bob Liv­ingston, R-La., the new speaker, went to the House floor and said he’d had an af­fair, and that the only hon­or­able thing he could do was re­sign. Which he did, right there in the mid­dle of the de­bate.

Our sim­ple mes­sage was sud­denly trumped by an even sim­pler one: Do some­thing wrong, get caught, re­sign.

I es­ti­mated that we had about 15 min­utes be­fore ev­ery­one caught their breath and the tele­vi­sion pun­dits started the drum­beat for the pres­i­dent, too, to re­sign. I sprinted to the Oval Of­fice to get Pres­i­dent Clin­ton’s re­ac­tion. While wait­ing for other staffers to ar­rive, I asked him not what we should say, but what he thought, and scrib­bled it down. Ten min­utes af­ter the meet­ing, I went to White House drive­way and read it aloud, word for word.

That clear state­ment — that it was wrong for Liv­ingston to re­sign and that the pol­i­tics of per­sonal de­struc­tion had to stop — seemed to break the fever be­fore it fully spiked. Be­cause the me­dia largely fo­cused on the pres­i­dent’s plea for Liv­ingston to re­con­sider, we avoided a full-scale out­cry for him to re­sign.

Af­ter that, I dashed to a State of the Union plan­ning meet­ing. I re­mem­ber sit­ting there, dis­cussing is­sues like health care, ed­u­ca­tion and gun safety, and think­ing, we are go­ing to get through this. Then, 10 min­utes in, I was pulled away to meet with the na­tional se­cu­rity staff. Dur­ing the lead-up to the im­peach­ment vote, we were about 10 days into a mil­i­tary ac­tion against Iraq. The mil­i­tary ac­tion was com­plete, and the na­tional se­cu­rity team needed the pres­i­dent to an­nounce it that evening.

We had no choice but to han­dle what some might call a com­mu­ni­ca­tions prob­lem: de­liv­er­ing op­pos­ing mes­sages from the pres­i­dent back to back. First, we had 150 mem­bers of Congress stand with the pres­i­dent on the South Lawn of the White House for a par­ti­san pep rally. The im­peach­ment was all about pol­i­tics, Democrats are good, Re­pub­li­cans are not — that was the gist.

Then, in the time it took to carry the pres­i­den­tial podium no more than 100 yards away, we moved in­side to de­liver a slightly dif­fer­ent mes­sage. Flanked by Amer­ica’s mil­i­tary lead­ers, the pres­i­dent de­clared that we were not a coun­try of Re­pub­li­cans and Democrats, but of Amer­i­cans, bound to­gether by pa­tri­o­tism. He pro­claimed the mil­i­tary ac­tion suc­cess­fully com­pleted, and he de­parted, leav­ing me to ex­plain how these two mes­sages — us against them, and we are all in this to­gether — could fit.

At the end of this long day, I went back to the of­fice. Wait­ing for me was a close col­league with two cold beers. We sat down, and I’ll al­ways re­mem­ber what he said next: “You know, ex­cept for getting im­peached, we had a pretty good day.”

Joe Lock­hart served as White House Press Sec­re­tary from 1998 to 2000 dur­ing the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion, and co-hosts the the pod­cast “Words Mat­ter.”

DOUG MILLS/AP 1998

White House spokesman Joe Lock­hart ges­tures while meet­ing re­porters in the White House brief­ing room to talk about the House im­peach­ment pro­ceed­ings.

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