Crybaby Bill

When Bill McCollum spoke, it was with the voice of a cool-headed statesman. "In essence, we prosecuted this summer," he said. "The way that people came and had their lives displayed before the public were sanction enough for the misdeeds if there were misdeeds."

It was the kind of bipartisan, live-and-let-live statement that makes government work.

But that was 11 years ago.

In November 1987, Congress had wrapped up its hearings into the Iran-contra scandal, a sordid tale of petty thievery, shredded documents, constitutional subversion and death. McCollum was among the eight Republicans on that committee who cheer-led the Reagan line. He signed a report explicitly rejecting the majority finding that Reagan's administration had "subverted the law, undermined the Constitution and threatened democracy" by trading arms to Iran and creating a private arms-supply network for the Nicaraguan contras.

"I just think that Mr. [Independent Counsel Lawrence] Walsh ought to pack his bags, close his files ... and just put all this to rest," McCollum said then.

Things are different now.

In November 1998, McCollum says there must be an impeachment inquiry, and it must not be limited by time constraints. "We're not going to cut it shorter than we have to to determine the facts," he says, adding that new witnesses will likely be called after Thanksgiving. And when everything has been fairly considered, the president should be removed from office.

This time the case is not about a privatized secret foreign policy, arming terrorist states, smuggling. It's about the constitutionally weighty matter of extramarital sex -- and of President Bill Clinton's seemingly congenital inability to be truthful about his apparently endless appetite for it.

Perjury is serious business, McCollum notes: "If the president of the United States is above the law [and] we don't impeach him for this, what kind of a message does that send?"

McCollum has been in Washington since 1980. But he emerged from obscurity only this summer and fall, as a key player steering the impeachment machine aimed at Clinton. With more than 50 appearances on national television news shows, the McCollum soundbite became an instant staple in reporting "Monicagate" or "zippergate" or "fellatigate."

Through it all, McCollum (R-Altimonte Springs) has maintained a consistent line: If, and only if, it is proven that Clinton lied under oath during a court proceeding, then that single crime -- "plain vanilla ... perjury," in McCollum's words -- would compel the congressman, handily elected to his 10th term on Nov. 4, reluctantly to vote for impeachment. The law, he says, is the law.

Yet, as public-opinion polls repeatedly insist Clinton should not be impeached -- and as election returns in part suggest a backlash against Republican partisanship on the matter -- it is clear that something has to give. And McCollum's insistent, narrow focus on the point is beginning to remake his image from the staid, conservative, straight-arrow he aspires to be, into something more like the shrill, reactionary opportunist that Newt Gingrich revealed himself to be. McCollum is starting to act like a crybaby.

Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr is scheduled to appear before the committee this week, and despite speculation that the prosecutor will make a strong case against the president and garner public sympathy the way Lt. Col. Oliver North did in the Iran-contra hearings, there is much to suggest McCollum and the other hard-liners are on the verge of defeat. That would mean a negotiated settlement or censure or -- perhaps -- an unceremonious dropping of the matter.

According to the Boston Globe, some 40 moderate Republican House members, led by Connecticut's Nancy Johnson, are working behind the scenes to derail impeachment in favor of censure -- and fast. A 16-year House veteran and chair of the ethics committee that investigated Gingrich's campaign-finance illegalities and influence-peddling shenanigans in 1995 (the ones that led to his censure and a $300,000 fine), Johnson is well versed in the intricacies of both ethics law and public opinion. That Johnson would head this effort is significant, though not surprising.

But Ralph Reed?

As the former chief strategist of the Christian Coalition, himself no stranger to power polls, Reed reportedly sent a memo this week to House Speaker-in-waiting Bob Livingston, of Louisiana, as well as other key Republicans urging them to abandon impeachment in favor of censure.

So, on the surface, it appears McCollum must decide whether to stick to his convictions or choose a more pragmatic route.

But the surface is deceptive.

What has happened so far was an elaborate game of political chess between Gingrich and Clinton. McCollum has been a pawn -- make that a knight -- in that game, his rise to stardom engineered in large part to allow Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde to wear the mask of staid impartiality while Gingrich could pantomime the part of statesman.

The basic play was this: Blitz the White House with scandalous allegations, then bomb it with details so numerous and salacious that Clinton would be shamed into resigning.

The miscalculation: Clinton is shameless.

Clinton's failure to yield brought about the impeachment "process," a slow-moving charade of rehash and legal hair-splitting for which few in or out of Congress have any patience.

Gingrich actually stood in the way of the more stalwart members of his party who pushed for a full frontal assault on Clinton through the impeachment process. That's one reason why, when the election results came in -- a five-seat net loss in the House for the Republicans -- Gingrich resigned both his speakership and his House seat.

But while most observers took the results as a rebuke to the get-Clinton crowd, the party's ultra right saw the opposite and called for a harder line. "Obstruction of justice and lying under oath by a president inevitably subvert the respect for law which is essential to the well-being of our constitutional system," said Republican Charles T. Canady of Lakeland, chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, a week after the election.

A Navy reservist and former prosecutor in the Air Force's Judge Advocate General's office, McCollum notes that 115 Americans are serving time today for perjury (a staffer says the figure comes from the bureau of prisons). He argues that the president should either set an example or be made into one.

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But in arguing that perjury alone is grounds for impeachment, McCollum has from the beginning been in the minority. Many of his fellows have said that more -- for example, a "pattern" of lies, or a subornation, bribery -- is needed to justify such a punishment. This stand made McCollum's words all the more compelling to the national media. If McCollum spoke for many on the Judiciary Committee, of which he is the third-ranking member, then it was a cinch that articles of impeachment would emerge from that committee, and for only the third time in U.S. history a president would face an impeachment vote in the House. And then maybe an impeachment hearing in the Senate.

Although the Judiciary Committee is dominated on both sides of the aisle by partisan warriors (Time magazine called it "an ideological rodeo"), McCollum has from the start positioned himself as a reluctant warrior. "Nobody I know wants to be partisan about this," he has said. "The public doesn't want to go through impeachment. I don't blame them, it's not good for the country, but with these serious criminal charges against the president, I think you're likely to see hearings. And I'm going to tell you these are serious matters."

Despite this thrilling calculus, which much of the press has taken at face value, McCollum has in the past shown a more nuanced sense of right and wrong.

When the underlying question was Congress's ability to control the national purse strings and declare (or not declare) war, McCollum found executive lies and obstruction of justice to be not egregious but heroic.

Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh eventually charged 14 people and convicted 11 in the Iran-contra investigation, although his conviction of two of the central figures, John Poindexter and Oliver North, for lying to Congress were overturned on technicalities. President George Bush took the unprecedented step (after he lost his 1992 re-election bid) of pardoning six other conspirators -- two before they were indicted -- but Walsh makes a strong case, in his 1994 final report, that coverup and obstruction of justice were the scandal's leitmotifs. Former Attorney General Edwin Meese "spearheaded an effort among top officials to falsely deny [Reagan's] awareness of" the transfer of arms to Iran, Walsh wrote. Had the coverup not lasted so long, Walsh said, the impeachment of Reagan "certainly should have been considered."

McCollum disagrees. "The Boland Amendment said no intelligence agency should be involved with aid to the contras," McCollum recalls. "So the question was, was the national security advisor an intelligence agency?"

Hey, is oral sex really sex?

But it turns out McCollum's statesmanship during the Iran-contra matter -- his advice in 1987 that the prosecutor "pack his bags" -- may have been more a personal issue than originally thought.

North's notebooks were made public in 1990, and they included a cryptic passage dated March 4, 1985, indicating that National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane briefed members of the House -- including Livingston, Hyde and McCollum -- on efforts to secure up to $50 million for the contras through Saudi Arabia and other countries.

If McFarlane told the congressmen about the back-channel funding scheme, then they should have spoken up about it when the Iran-contra scandal broke a year later. Bob Fletcher, who ran against McCollum in 1990, alleged McCollum had become a co-conspirator by keeping that secret. He asked Walsh to investigate.

But McCollum said the information flow at the meeting went the other way: He and the congressmen told McFarlane and North what they were doing to pass a bill supplying $27 million in humanitarian aid to the contras. McCollum said talk of "third party" funding might have come from Hyde.

No mention was made, at the time, of the possibility of significant other funding from drug sales. Although Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry had investigated and held hearings on the nearly constant stream of drug-trafficking allegations that surrounded the contras, his committee and its findings were dismissed.

McCollum co-chairs the Speakers Task Force for a Drug-Free America and has authored some of the nation's most draconian antidrug bills. He has never spoken publicly about the contras' drug-running, except for one brief moment on July 21, 1987, when as a member of the Iran-contra committee, he asked Poindexter if he had ever asked Meese to call off a criminal investigation involving the contras.

Yes, said Poindexter. And he began to explain a situation involving Eugene Hasenfus, who was shot down over Nicaragua.

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McCollum: "But I want to call you to a halt on that because you have testified to that. I should've said other than that, because I'm interested in the question that's been raised a lot in the press about somebody asking the Justice Department to stop an investigation going on into drug smuggling, and to arms shipments down in Costa Rica and that sort of thing."

A. "Absolutely not."

Q. "And nothing other than that Hasenfus incident you've described?"

A. "No, that's correct."

McCollum asked no more questions of Poindexter. Yet two months earlier Democrat Charles Rangel, of New York, then chairman of the House select committee on narcotics, said the Justice Department and CIA were trying to thwart his panel's efforts to learn whether a link existed between contra supply flights and drug smuggling. He said Meese had refused to allow Drug Enforcement Agency officials to brief the committee, and the CIA had refused to give information.

McCollum actually served on another committee investigating the charges, and he insists, to this day, that "no information ever arose that the agency was involved" in drug running.

This fall, in a report widely ignored by the press, the CIA finally admitted what should have been known all along -- that the contras and associate shipped cocaine to the U.S., and the CIA ignored it whenever possible, and intervened on behalf of the drug dealers when the agency felt it was necessary to protect the contras' image.

As with the contra effort and scandal, the Clinton impeachment machine is oiled by public opinion, which Speaker-designate Livingston acknowleged "would have to be considered in the political arena." But its constitutional firing pin is the definition of "high crimes and misdemeanors."

Surprisingly, the definition is as elastic as Clinton's waistband.

Of the 19 scholars who testified before the judiciary committee, 10 said the perjury allegation was enough for impeachment. Eight said it wasn't. One wasn't clear on the matter.

Former Reagan Justice Department official Charles Cooper said Clinton's actions are "at the core" of high crimes and misdemeanors. University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein warned that the current process could end the "tradition of mutual arms control" that has limited the use of impeachment.

These kinds of divisions torpedoed the only two impeachment trials that didn't involve trial judges -- those of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase in 1805 and President Andrew Johnson in 1868. In both cases the Senate acquitted the officials even though the opposing political party held a two-thirds majority.

This is the kind of crack-up the Clinton impeachment seems headed for: The Judiciary Committee will write up a recommendation to impeach, but it will die an ignominious death. Starr will continue to hammer away, as McCollum, Hyde, Canady and a host of others who never got over the Iran-contra ordeal insist in every interview that Clinton is a criminal who must be impeached. Soon the requests for interviews will stop coming.

Which, in a way, is too bad. Clinton did perjure himself, but by the perjury-in-a-civil-case yardstick, so have most divorced people.

Linda Tripp's tapes of Monica Lewinsky get released, as Lewinsky cuts a six-figure book deal. Clinton's lawyers will be given the right to cross-examine Starr. The Republican leadership is reforming and trying to develop a graceful exit from the crisis.

Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania publicly called for a halt to the process, adding that if Clinton did perjure himself, he could just as well be prosecuted after he leaves office.

"I don't think there's a reasonable reason to do that,"counters McCollum. "The tendency will be to let sleeping dogs lie at that point." So he soldiers on, always, always, with sadness and reluctance. "The constitutional remedy is impeachment," he says. "That's the problem. There is no other solution ... that's the box that you're in in this case."

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