Past and Present: The Starr Report and Clinton Impeachment

The report was overly aggressive and proved a disaster for the GOP, but its effects linger.

Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr is sworn in to testify before the House Judiciary Committee for the impeachment inquiry of President Bill Clinton on Capitol Hill.

Kenneth Starr is sworn in to testify before the House Judiciary Committee for the impeachment inquiry of President Bill.

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Release of the Starr report produced an unexpected public reaction. The humiliation of Clinton for what was widely considered private conduct clearly made many Americans uncomfortable. A late-September Gallup Poll found that 65 percent of the public (including 39 percent of Republicans) thought the president was being unfairly attacked over a purely private matter.

Nevertheless, spurred on by the content of the Starr report, House Republican leaders, conscious of the impending midterm election, decided to press forward with an impeachment inquiry. On October 9, exactly a month after receiving Starr's report, every member of the 227-member House Republican majority, along with 31 Democrats, voted to authorize such proceedings, while 176 Democrats registered opposition.

The November 1998 election proved to be a referendum of sorts on the Starr report and the Republican call for impeachment. For the first time since 1866, a party gained congressional seats in its sixth year of holding the White House. Ulysses Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan had all seen their party lose seats, but the 1998 Democrats held their own in the Senate and gained six seats in the House. American voters clearly signaled their disapproval of the move for impeachment.

But fueled by the Starr report, the impeachment of Bill Clinton nevertheless moved forward. While the effort to remove the president from office ultimately failed, the lingering memory of the Lewinsky scandal, made so vivid by Starr, caused Al Gore to shy away from Clinton while seeking to succeed him in 2000. Many observers concluded that Gore's tactic cost him the election. Memories of the effort to remove Clinton helped make impeachment of his successor the first suggestion from George W. Bush's most outspoken opponents when he began to encounter serious criticism.

Most important, however, the failed effort to remove Clinton appears to have encouraged the belief of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney that impeachment is an ineffective constitutional restraint and that a president seeking to accumulate authority in the White House could do so without effective challenge. Ironically, Kenneth Starr's effort to topple one president has helped empower another. Ten years later, the consequences of the Starr report are still unfolding.

David E. Kyvig, distinguished research professor at Northern Illinois University, is the author of The Age of Impeachment: American Constitutional Culture Since 1960 (University of Kansas Press, 2008).