WASHINGTON — For weeks, President Clinton's beleaguered supporters worried late into the night about one gnawing question: Was another shoe about to drop?
Would the long-awaited report of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr reveal shocking new facts--or important new details--that would show the president's conduct to be clearly worse than already had been reported?
The answer, buried in 445 pages of often-squalid detail about Clinton's relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky: No.
The president emerges from the long narrative of Starr's prosecution brief as a weak and distasteful figure, a man toying with the emotions of a young woman for his own ignoble uses.
And Starr's case against the president on charges of perjury and attempted obstruction of justice--charges stemming from his attempts to cover up the affair--appears substantial.
But inside the White House and on Capitol Hill, Democrats almost paradoxically were relieved: There were, at least, no new charges here.
"This is all?" asked Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) as she scrolled through a Web site version of the report on her desktop computer. "The only thing in it is Monica Lewinsky."
A leading political scholar agreed. "I think [Clinton] has turned a corner in his favor--for survival," said Larry Sabato, a professor of government at the University of Virginia. "He may spend the next two years as the lamest of lame ducks, but it's hard to envision impeachment based on this."
Even the stock market seemed to exhale: the Dow Jones industrial average bounced up 179.96 points, or 2.4%, on what Wall Street analysts said was partly a reaction to the lack of new bombshells in the report.
Any long-term verdict on Clinton, of course, must await the public's reaction to the report and the hearings that Congress still intends to conduct. House Republicans said that Starr's report gives them a firm basis to explore a long list of charges against the president.
But for at least one day, after weeks of fear and sadness, the Clinton camp was feeling an unaccustomed, almost unreal, sense of relief.
"I think the worst is over," said a senior Democratic aide in the Senate. "There will be a giant collective national gasp over the weekend . . . [but] people feel really kind of relieved."
With the dreaded report finally on the table, White House staff members had a clear target to shoot at. The president's lawyers, released from the tattered bonds of confidentiality, wasted no time in turning their fire on their favorite foil, Starr.
"In the face of the president's admission of his relationship, the disclosure of lurid and salacious allegations can only be intended to humiliate the president and force him from office," White House Counsel Charles F.C. Ruff said.
And on Capitol Hill, for the first time since Clinton's grudging semi-apology on Aug. 17, Democrats were forming ranks and speaking from common talking points, dismissing the report instead of denouncing the president.
"The allegations of obstruction of justice are nothing more than what we've already heard," said Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee. "The president did not tell the truth about an extramarital affair. Let's not make more of it than it is."
The reaction of congressional Democrats was particularly important to the president's survival. Over the last four weeks, the erosion of Clinton's Democratic support was the clearest sign that his job might be in real danger.
By Wednesday evening, though, White House strategists were willing to say, if only guardedly, that the erosion had been stopped--"partly thanks to Ken Starr," said one.
And while Republicans vowed to move ahead with hearings on the question of impeaching the president, some GOP members of Congress confessed to uncertainty over the course ahead.
Many said that the most important factor will be not their own reading of the report but their constituents' reactions.
"When the public starts responding, Congress will take its cue," said Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.). "We are always followers."
Asked if impeachment proceedings are inevitable, Linder said, "Probably Step One," the preliminary hearings already planned. But, he said, Republicans are unlikely to push for impeachment unless there is also Democratic support.
"If Democrats decide they don't care what the facts are, we can't impeach the president ourselves," said Linder.
The Democratic spin, from both the White House and Capitol Hill, was--as Clinton's lawyer, David E. Kendall, repeated like a mantra--"no credible evidence of impeachable offenses."
"This is not a new story," he said. "A man tried to keep an inappropriate relationship private."
Other White House aides were careful not to claim victory but agreed that they are breathing easier. "We still have tough days ahead," one Clinton strategist said. "But it doesn't feel like we're being railroaded the way it did a week ago. This thing is a little more navigable now."