WASHINGTON — It was nearly 10 years ago that Texas Democrat Jim Wright resigned from the job he had coveted for much of his adult life: the speakership of the House of Representatives.
Wright, a fierce and florid partisan who had never shied from a fight, knew he had been cornered after an exhaustive investigation into his financial dealings spearheaded by a young Republican backbencher from Georgia named Newt Gingrich.
As he surrendered his gavel, Wright offered a prophetic final cry of rage: "When vengeance becomes more desirable than vindication, harsh personal attacks on one another's motives and one another's character drown out the quiet logic of serious debate. All of us, in both political parties, must resolve to bring this period of mindless cannibalism to an end."
A decade later, with the curtain finally falling on the fierce battle over President Clinton's fate--a struggle that has bloodied the accusers as well as the accused--a new generation of politicians is taking up Wright's cry and demanding an end to what House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) calls "the politics of personal destruction."
Those appeals may strike a receptive chord with the majority of voters, who throughout the long crisis staunchly rejected the idea that the charges rendered Clinton unfit to serve.
But some experts argue that the forces behind today's scandal are so deeply ingrained in the workings of the political parties, the interest groups and the news media that they may be unstoppable.
"I will bet that people will claim that this is a turning point," said political scientist Larry Sabato, the author of a book on the political manipulation of scandal. "That will be the buzz for a few months--until a scandal is used on the first of the 2000 presidential candidates."
Although the 13-month struggle surrounding Clinton's relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky has demonstrated that voters resist judging public figures solely on the basis of their private failings, it has also shown again that an ethics investigation remains the most effective way to immobilize a political adversary.
And, most analysts agree, that makes ethical attack an almost irresistible weapon. "It doesn't stop until the voters force it to stop," Democratic pollster Guy Molyneux said. "Which is to say, when they actually start punishing candidates who do this."
American politicians have been accusing their rivals of violating laws of God or man since the days of the Founding Fathers. But since the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s, politicians have more systematically manipulated accusations of scandal against their rivals. As political scientists Benjamin Ginsberg and Martin Shefter noted in their recently re-released book, scandal has become a mechanism for the parties to pursue "Politics by Other Means."
During the early 1980s, Democrats warned of a "sleaze factor" in Ronald Reagan's administration, as they attacked the ethics of his appointees. Later in the decade, Wright fell victim to a Republican drive to portray the House, long a Democratic stronghold, as endemically corrupt.
Liberals next raised the scandal banner when they tried to derail President Bush's nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court with Anita Faye Hill's charge that Thomas had sexually harassed her.
And from the moment Clinton edged onto the national stage in 1991, the GOP, the press and other critics have directed against him a permanent drizzle of personal and political accusations.
Clinton may have given his opponents a particular wealth of targets. But the Lewinsky controversy has illuminated the emergence of a permanent scandal infrastructure, with four transmission belts now conveying a steady flow of accusations and allegations to the public.
The parties. The scandal wars draw much of their fervor from a pattern of atrocity and revenge in the tradition of the Hatfields and the McCoys, or Serbs and ethnic Albanians.
After Gingrich became speaker in 1995, for instance, Democrats promptly launched an ethics investigation against him in retaliation for his strike against Wright. Just as Democrats rallied behind Hill in her sexual harassment claim against Thomas, conservatives sustained Paula Corbin Jones in her similar claim against Clinton. Drawing on the Democratic strategy against Reagan, House Republicans started more than three dozen investigations into the Clinton administration in the last Congress--even apart from the impeachment inquiry.
By breaking the psychological barrier to impeachment, this latest showdown between Clinton and congressional Republicans may produce more powerful grievances than any of these earlier battles.