"Perhaps once or twice in every generation," said former Rep. Paul McHale, D-Pa., last week, there comes an issue "that is so wrapped in passion that families are torn apart, political parties are divided and friendships are destroyed. The controversy takes on a life of its own. I knew that no matter what position I took, unless I tried to waffle my way, that I would lose friends."
The issue, of course, was impeachment. McHale voted to impeach President Clinton in 1998. He was not running for election at the time, nonetheless the vote was difficult for him.
"A president of my party, for whom I voted twice, had blatantly and repeatedly lied under oath," said the former Marine. He was willing to vote against impeachment if Clinton admitted his misconduct. But that never happened, and McHale cast the only vote he felt he could as long as the president continued to trade in untruths.
McHale was one of only five House Democrats to vote for impeachment. Now only three are left: Ralph Hall and Charles Stenholm of Texas and Gene Taylor of Mississippi. Virgil Goode of Virginia is still in office, but he became an independent in January.
Voters in four out of five of these Dems' districts favored Bob Dole over Bill Clinton in 1996. Only McHale's district preferred Clinton to Dole. While cynics may dismiss these Democrats' impeachment decisions as the result of shameless scrambling to retain their seats, the same also could be said of the 200-plus Dems who voted against impeachment. Said Goode, "I think some that defended the president did so out of party loyalty, instead of the facts or the evidence."
Both McHale and Goode say that Democratic Party and House leaders treated them well despite their impeachment votes, and a staffer from one of the other impeaching Democrats' office confirmed as much. Republicans who voted against their party said as much when I interviewed them two weeks ago. Leaders on both sides of the aisle want a majority, and they're not likely to mess with any incumbent who can help them tip the scale.
Goode -- his name rhymes with mood -- felt that the vote was a simple matter that did not require courage or a wrenching journey into his soul. "I feel that I voted correctly based on the facts and the evidence. President Clinton, in my opinion, lied under oath. His attorney waved around a knowingly false affidavit, and when asked if this affidavit was true, (Clinton) said, 'Absolutely true.'" If the media had focused more on the facts and less on the polls, Goode thinks, the outcome could have been different.
Tonight, President Clinton will address the Democratic National Convention. He will speak to a party he has traumatized, to elected officials who risked their credibility as they told reporters they believed Clinton was guiltless in the Monica scandal and to delegates whom he misled. None of that will matter. Expect the faithful to swoon.
There is a belief among Democrats that the less said about impeachment, Monica and perjury, the better. They want to put the whole mess behind them, and leave that old garbage in the wake, along with the shattered friendships and political alliances and other wreckage.
Why not? As a staffer of one of the other three Democrats said of pro-Clinton constituents who were angry at the member's impeachment vote, "Frankly, they've gotten over it."
Goode certainly doesn't expect the president to address the episode. McHale said he hopes that Clinton doesn't mention impeachment -- that he'd prefer that the president speak about the successes of his administration.
That's how the professionals feel. And so the question remains: After all the acrimony, will the public be as understanding as Bill Clinton enjoys his Last Hurrah?