WORLD

The morality playoffs

After a crucial vote, Clinton’s trial enters its final phase

ANDREW PHILLIPS February 8 1999
WORLD

The morality playoffs

After a crucial vote, Clinton’s trial enters its final phase

ANDREW PHILLIPS February 8 1999

The morality playoffs

WORLD

UNITED STATES

After a crucial vote, Clinton’s trial enters its final phase

ANDREW PHILLIPS

The man Americans admire most—Bill Clinton—shook hands last week with the runner-up in the admiration sweep-stakes, Pope John Paul II. Clinton, rated tops by 18 per cent in Gallup’s latest survey of public esteem, greeted the Pope (seven per cent) in St. Louis and chatted about values.

John Paul talked about the need for a “higher moral vision.” The President spoke of America’s drive for “civic virtues.” At almost the same moment, a Republican congressman named Ed Bryant was on his feet before the U.S. Senate, musing out loud about the meaning of Clinton’s dalliance with young Monica Lewinsky. “Is it good, is it bad or is it ugly?” Bryant asked as he pleaded with the senators not to abruptly end Clinton’s impeachment trial. “We believe that it’s bad, ugly and illegal.”

The two sides of Clinton’s double life—President and penitent, leader and liar—have clashed so often in the past year that the contrast has become almost routine.

Celebrating public morality with the Pope while his private immoralities are dissected by the people’s elected representatives amounts to just another week at the office. Not for much longer, though. Finally last week, the Senate made it clear that the impeachment saga will be over sooner rather than later—quite possibly by Friday, Feb. 12. A host of legal obstacles and political hurdles

must be jumped before then. But that was the day that Republicans, who hold the majority in the Senate, set for voting on the two articles of impeachment that charge Clinton with committing perjury and obstructing justice.

Nor is there any remaining doubt about the outcome. For months, the conventional wisdom was that Clinton would be acquitted if he was impeached by the House of Representatives and put on trial in the Senate. With Republicans holding just 55 of the 100 Senate seats, it would take a dozen Democrats to turn against their President in order to reach the 67 votes required under the U.S. Constitution to find him guilty and eject him from office. For once, the conventional wisdom proved accurate. In a crucial test vote that broke almost

cleanly along party lines, 44 senators (all Democrats) voted to dismiss the case immediately. Fifty-six senators (all the Republicans plus a single Democrat, Russell Feingold of Wisconsin) voted to continue the trial. The Republican majority got its way, but the vote demonstrated that more than a third of the Senate will refuse to convict Clinton—making it as certain as anything can be that he will remain in office.

The stark reality, then, is that impeachment is much like the parrot in the old Monty Python sketch—dead, deceased, extinct, an ex-impeachment. “You’ve seen the end of the movie,” said Republican Richard Shelby of Alabama. ‘We’re just trying to find closure.”

If that was true, what was left to fight over? A lot, as it turned out. All parties to the drama continued to manoeuvre for political advantage, historical vindication—and next year’s elections. Senate Democrats and the White House want to make sure that Republicans

are blamed for turning impeachment into a partisan affair, and for unfairly pursuing the President against the popular will. Republicans in the Senate were caught in a bind: anxious to end a trial whose outcome is now known, but reluctant to pull the rug out too abruptly from their fellow Republicans in the House, who have zealously pursued the case against Clinton. At the same time, Republicans want to find a way for the Senate to formally condemn Clinton’s behaviour in the Lewinsky affair—so ^ that posterity does not record that § a complacent Congress merely S winked at wrongdoing by a popusa lar president. ‘We want to make some kind of statement to history,” said Robert Bennett, a Republican from Utah.

The fight focused on two main issues: calling witnesses and finding a way to rebuke the President. Democrats strongly opposed calling any witnesses, arguing that they would add nothing to the voluminous record compiled by independent counsel Kenneth Starr. Republicans, however, used their majority to authorize the prosecutors from the House to take depositions from witnesses—but only after they had pared their list from as many as 15 to what their leader, Representative Henry Hyde, called “a pitiful three.” Early this week, lawyers from both sides will take evidence in private from Lewinsky herself, Clinton’s close friend Vernon Jordan, and presidential aide Sidney Blumenthal. The prosecutors said they will not focus on Lewinsky’s sexual relationship with Clinton, but rather on suggestions that he coaxed her to lie about it and enlisted Jordan to find her a job in return for her silence.

Once the depositions are complete, the public fight will resume. Democrats said they will oppose allowing videotape of the testimony to be made public, something that would likely further embarrass the President, or allowing any witnesses to testify in person before the Senate. And they will continue to paint the proceeding as a purely partisan exercise. “It’s their trial now,” said John Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts.

The two sides will also battle over how to record their displeasure at Clinton’s philandering and public lies. Some Democratic senators, led by Dianne Feinstein of California, have said they want to pass a resolution condemning Clinton’s “wrongful and wilful misconduct”—but only after the Senate has voted yes or no on the two articles of impeachment. Some Republicans, though, want to do something stronger. A proposal last week from Senator Susan Collins of Maine would split the Senate vote into two parts. First, senators would vote on a socalled finding of fact—a resolution that would declare the President lied and obstructed justice. Only then would they vote on whether to remove him from office.

That would allow Republicans to condemn Clinton in the strongest terms—by a simple majority of 51 votes—while leaving him in the White House. Constitutional experts say such a move might be illegal since previous practice suggests that a finding of guilt in an impeachment trial automatically means removal from office. The White House insisted last week that it would be both unconstitutional and unfair—a kind of stealth impeachment that gets around the twothirds majority required by the Constitution. If Republicans try to use their majority to ram it through, Clinton’s defenders said, they would tie up the trial with legal manoeuvres and delay it well past the planned Feb. 12 end-date. All sides could at least agree on one thing: no one wants that. □