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'The myth of the big-time president'

'Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate'
By Bob Woodward

June 16, 1999
Web posted at: 2:28 p.m. EDT (1828 GMT)

(CNN) -- How is it that after an event like Watergate, each succeeding presidency is plagued by scandal after scandal? How is it that a president could have been impeached? Why did none of these presidents appear to learn much of consequence from Nixon's political demise? Bob Woodward investigates what he calls "the myth of the big-time president" -- that each president strives for an administration of legendary proportions.


From Chapter 40

Gerald Ford had been traveling from California to Colorado when impeachment was voted but saw the gathering on the White House South Lawn on television. He was offended. It looked like a pep rally. It was another Clinton stunt. Ford liked Clinton personally but was wary of him. In the summer of 1993, Clinton and Ford had spent several days together in Colorado on vacation. They played golf one day with Jack Nicklaus. Clinton claimed he shot something like an 80.

Ford was shocked. Golf was a matter of honor, even for old duffers, and Clinton had repeatedly taken second shots called mulligans.

Nicklaus leaned over to Ford and whispered in disgust, "Eighty with fifty floating mulligans."

Both Ford and Jimmy Carter had agreed to speak jointly on impeachment because the issue had so many consequences for the presidency. Carter had faxed a draft statement. Ford and his staff had gone to work. After six drafts, the two ex-presidents sent a statement to the op-ed page of The New York Times.

Clinton read it on Monday, December 21.

"A Time to Heal Our Nation," by Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

Citing the Nixon pardon and Carter's grant of amnesty for those who had avoided the Vietnam draft, they called for reconciliation -- Senate censure without a trial. They proposed a bipartisan resolution that would require Clinton to acknowledge publicly that "he did not tell the truth under oath." They wanted an agreement that his acknowledgment could not "be used in any future criminal trial."

On Wednesday afternoon, December 30, Clinton called Ford.

Ford repeated his position. The Republicans were committed and would need a significant concession to keep the Senate trial from going forward. For censure to be feasible and practical at this point, Bill, you'll have to concede perjury.

I can't do that, Clinton said. He was firm. Those were hard, impossible terms. He made a presentation that mirrored his grand jury argument. He believed he had not lied. His lawyers supported him. He said he had told the painful truth to the grand jury -- the only issue in the impeachment charge of perjury now.

If nothing else, Clinton was articulate and smooth. But Ford said he couldn't agree.

Their proposal provides for immunity from prosecution, Ford reminded Clinton. Bill, he said, Congress could provide for immunity.

"They can't do that," Clinton said. His lawyers had researched the matter. Prosecution of an individual was an executive branch function that the Congress could not determine or prohibit.

"Bill," Ford said, "the Congress has pretty broad jurisdiction, and I've seen them do things before where the experts said they couldn't. And I happen to believe very strongly that this is an area where the Congress could affirmatively act to give you immunity."

Clinton didn't want immunity.

So it looks like a Senate trial, Ford said. A long, drawn-out trial would be a disaster.

Jerry, Clinton said, why not call Trent Lott and remind him of the advantages of a short trial.

Ford promised that he would do just that.

He reached Lott and reported that Clinton was not going to concede perjury. "Therefore I'm stepping back from doing anything," Ford told him. But he advised Lott to keep the trial short. The party could not afford to be defined as the party of impeachment.

Copyright 1999 by Bob Woodward

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