Clinton on Trial

A Better Hamlet Than Olivier:Rep. Lindsey Graham Turns Indecision Into High Art

There are fewer of them every hour, but still, how lovely it must be to be an Undecided Republican Moderate! The president is at your beck and call, ready to shuffle and grovel for you at a moment’s notice. So what if you haven’t been quoted by a major paper in years–now a Washington Post reporter shadows you from sunup to sundown, mining your every “No comment” for significance. Wherever you turn, there’s a TV producer begging for your time: Meet the Press, Larry King Live, Oprah, a cameo on NYPD Blue–anything you want, congressman. Now is the delightful moment when your indecision is being mistaken for wisdom, your vacillation for sober judgment.

Several moderate Republicans–notably Rep. Chris “Meet With Me or Else, Mr. President” Shays, R-Conn., and Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., who held a press conference to announce that he hadn’t made up his mind–have performed credibly in their Hamlet role, milking the impeachment run-up for every minute of TV time they could. But these moderates are pikers compared with Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. Graham’s performance over the last several months–a Hamlet that would make Laurence Olivier jealous–is worth reviewing. It has been a four step lesson in how a backbencher transforms himself into a statesman.

Step 1: The declaration of free agency. Never mind that Graham is one of the most conservative members of the extraordinarily conservative House Judiciary Committee: He led the 1997 coup against House Speaker Newt Gingrich and once said the Clinton agenda “makes you want to throw up.” Everyone forgot this immediately when, at the first impeachment hearing in October, Graham declared: “I have no clue what I am going to do yet. … Is this Watergate or Peyton Place?” (Skeptics, of course, may ask how a congressman who had–by his own press secretary’s admission–already read all the relevant testimony and watched both Clinton videotapes could still “have no clue.” But let’s not concern ourselves with such nitpicking questions.)

Graham’s appearance of indecision, coupled with his gift for one-liners, quickly got him anointed as The Reasonable Republican. While his fellow committee Republicans seemed to have made up their minds, Graham played the folksy, commonsensical fellow who wasn’t imprisoned by ideology, only wanted to get to the truth, looked forward to hearing the president’s defense, etc. This anointing of Graham led to …

Step 2: Public agonizing. Graham, the second most junior Republican on the committee, soon found himself ensconced in every TV green room in Christendom. He chin-stroked on CNN, stayed above the fray on Today, ruminated on Meet the Press, deliberated on Face the Nation. He seemed troubled, reasonable, capable of compromise. Democrats applauded him for his thoughtfulness. Newspapers profiled Graham, hailing him as a “moderate.” (He’s a moderate like the Jacobins were moderates.)

During this public pondering, Graham segued into …

Step 3: The feint left. Graham repeated his catchphrase “Watergate or Peyton Place?” at every opportunity. No TV show, press conference, or committee hearing was complete till Graham trotted out Peyton Place. And most times he said it, Graham would hint, ever so slightly, that he was leaning toward Peyton Place, a scandal that was more about the president’s sexual failings than his abuse of office. Even last Tuesday, on the penultimate day of hearings, Graham was suggesting that he’d go easy on the White House: “This is more like Peyton Place than it is Watergate,” he declared.

All this hinting set Graham up for …

Step 4: The high-minded right turn. During his long public brooding, Graham seemed not to have a devious bone in his body. Then he sprang his trap. On the final day of hearings, he arranged in advance for two other Republican members to cede him their time to question the final witness, White House Counsel Charles Ruff. Using the borrowed time, Graham delivered a 15 minute harangue in which he leveled an entirely new charge against the president–that Clinton orchestrated a White House smear campaign to destroy Monica Lewinsky in the press and only retreated when the blue dress was discovered. This, Graham intoned, was the worst of Clinton’s crimes.

Despite his oft-stated interest in the White House’s defense, Graham timed his attack to forestall any response. Though Graham had suspected the possibility of a smear campaign for a while, he had never asked the White House about it or given the president’s lawyers a chance to present a defense. Instead, Graham saved it for maximal exposure–and maximum damage. Graham was the last questioner of the last witness on the last day, and he left Ruff no time to respond. The strategy worked. TV networks clambered to score interviews with Graham that night, and the conservative world cheered. Graham’s earlier ambivalence–his judicious temperament–made his final condemnation of the president all the more damning.

After collecting his kudos from the right, Graham did vote against one article of impeachment. He decided that Clinton’s lies in his civil deposition were not material to the Paula Jones case and hence weren’t perjury. Again, the media lionized him for his fair-mindedness.

Graham’s method should inspire all obscure young politicians with hopes of one day being statesmen. He has earned a reputation as an iconoclast who will challenge his own party–without actually challenging it. He has delighted Republican loyalists by joining their side at the moment it would most injure Clinton. And he has placed his name in the Rolodex of every Washington TV producer. Not bad for three months’ work.

Illustration on the Table of Contents by Peter Kuper.