An edgy U.S. Senate opens the trial of Bill Clinton
When the Senate of the United States finally got down to the serious business of putting the 42nd president of the United States on trial, it was, appropriately enough for a body that revels in its reputation for stately deliberation, 20 minutes behind schedule. And just as appropriately for a chamber that prides itself on tradition—where gleaming brass spittoons stand as reminders of a time when ejecting a stream of black tobacco juice was a gentleman’s prerogative—it was the oldest member who called them to order. The quavering voice of Strom Thurmond, the 96-year-old senator from South Carolina, summoned them to receive the chief justice of the Supreme Court,
William Rehnquist. But when Rehnquist, decked out in his Gilbert and Sullivan-inspired black and gold robe, strode onto the floor of the Senate, all the tradition in the world could not tell the 100 senators how to respond. A moment of palpable uncertainty gripped the chamber until, finally, they hauled themselves slowly to their feet, swore to “do impartial justice,” and began what no living American has witnessed: the impeachment trial of a president.
The last time the Senate took up such a task, in the spring of 1868, Washington was a ramshackle town still recovering from the ravages of the Civil War and Pennsylvania Avenue was a muddy track from Capitol Hill to the White House, where President Andrew Johnson awaited his eventual acquittal. No wonder, then, that the senators were unsure how to proceed in the case of William Jefferson Clinton, as the two articles of impeachment approved by the House of Representatives formally describe Johnson’s embattled successor. Mindful of the bitter atmosphere that enveloped the House in December, when it impeached the President along strict party lines, they strove mightily to stop the Senate from degenerating into what Joseph Biden, a Democrat from Delaware, called “a pit-bull ring.” In the end, they managed to patch together a compromise that will allow the trial to begin this week—but only puts off the tough decisions until later.
The manoeuvring, both on the public airwaves and behind the scenes, underscored a host of divisions. Between Democrats and Republicans, to be sure, and between Clinton’s White House and the 13 Republican congressmen who will prosecute the case against him in the Senate. But perhaps the most telling divisions were among Republicans themselves, sharply split on how to get through the impeachment maze without digging themselves a deeper political hole. Over the Christmas-New Year break, the leader of the Republican majority in the Senate, Trent Lott of Mississippi, cautiously endorsed a plan for a quick, four-day trial without any witnesses. With Clinton almost certain to survive the two-thirds majority vote needed to convict him and remove him from office on charges of peijury and obstruction of justice, it would have allowed all sides to satisfy the public demand for an end to the impeachment saga.
Lott was clearly responding, as well, to signs that Republicans have hurt themselves badly by being seen to prolong the scandal over Clinton’s liaison with onetime White House intern Monica Lewinsky and his efforts to cover it up. Just as the Republican majority in the House was impeaching Clinton in mid-December, polls showed that the party’s standing with voters had dropped to its lowest level in 14 years. Six in 10 Americans told pollsters that Republicans in Congress were out of touch, and a similar number opposed impeachment. Tellingly, one survey last week found that only 52 per cent of those who identity themselves as Republicans support a full trial. The party, say many analysts, has painted itself as extremist by pressing the impeachment case against Clinton so relentlessly—an image that Lott was determined to change.
The political calculus is simple. With the campaign for the presidency in 2000 starting in earnest, Republicans must build up a track record of achievements they can take to voters next year. In Congress, that means getting past the no-win impeachment issue and racking up accomplishments such as overhauling social security, reforming Medicare and passing a significant tax cut. When they failed last year to reach any of those goals, voters punished them at the polls.
Lott must deal with an even more pressing reality. Nineteen Republican senators face re-election next year and many are vulnerable to Democratic challenges. Congressmen, including most of the right-wing Republicans who pushed impeachment so fiercely, tend to come from safe districts and are most influenced by extreme elements within their own party. Senators, by contrast, must draw support across an entire state and so are often more attuned to swings in general public opinion. By clearing the way for a quick end to the impeachment issue, Lott was intent on cutting his party’s losses and protecting its 55-seat majority in the Senate.
Conservative Republicans, however, would have none of it. House judiciary committee chairman Henry Hyde, the congressman who engineered Clinton’s impeachment in the House and will lead the prosecution in the Senate, protested that his team of 13 so-called managers must be able to pursue its case against Clinton without restrictions—including being allowed to call witnesses. They wanted to call as many as 15, likely including Lewinsky herself as well as such key figures as Clinton’s secretary, Betty Currie, his friend and fixer, Vernon Jordan, and possibly White House aides such as Clinton’s chief of staff, John Podesta, and his former political adviser, Dick Morris. “As in any court proceeding,” Hyde said, “witnesses are necessary during a trial so that evidence may be thoroughly weighed and tested before a conviction.” Another House Republican, Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, added flatly: ‘You can’t make a proper case without witnesses.”
That became the key sticking point. Senate Democrats and the White House argued that with 60,000 pages of testimony and evidence already produced by independent counsel Kenneth Starr, senators could make up their minds without bringing Lewinsky and
others into the Senate. Both feared that parading witnesses through the chamber could turn what looks like a sure acquittal for Clinton into an unpredictable process that might yet turn against him. Worse, said senators who oppose witnesses, allowing the prosecutors to bring in anyone they wanted risked turning the proceedings into a show trial designed to humiliate the President. Those fears were fuelled when some Republicans raised the possibility of calling witnesses not even mentioned by Starr in his voluminous report to Congress—such as Kathleen Willey, who alleged last spring that Clinton groped her just outside the Oval Office.
Events, in fact, seemed to be conspiring towards a replay of the disastrous, divisive House proceedings that so appalled public opinion late last year. With that spectre hovering over them, senators from both parties gathered privately late last week in the old Senate chamber—unused since 1859. One senator, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, reminded them that they could emulate the statesmanlike compromisers who once laboured in that room, or end up in a partisan brawl reminiscent of the time in 1856 when a congressman from South Carolina stormed over to the Senate and brutally caned a senator from Massachusetts. With that advice still fresh, they managed to work out a deal.
Under the complicated arrangement, Clinton’s trial will start in earnest with procedural arguments on Jan. 13. Then on the 14th, the House prosecutors led by Hyde will start to lay out their case. They will have 24 hours—spread out over three or four working days—to argue that the Senate should find Clinton guilty on the two articles of impeachment that the House adopted on Dec. 19. The first charges the President with committing perjury when he testified last August before a grand jury and denied that he had had “sexual relations” with Lewinsky near the Oval Office. The second accuses Clinton of obstructing justice by, among other things, urging Lewinsky to lie about their affair and using Currie to hide evidence from Starr’s grand jury.
Then, Clinton’s lawyers will also have 24 hours to present their defence. After that, senators will have 16 hours—about two working days—to question both sides by submitting written questions to Relinquish At that point, the Senate will decide whether to adjourn the trial and effectively dismiss the case—a decision it can take by a simple majority of 51 votes. And it will also vote on whether to accept depositions from witnesses.
Before any witnesses actually appear on the Senate floor, a dramatic and risky move for both sides, the Senate would have to take yet another vote. The bottom line: witnesses may eventually be called, but it will take two majority votes by the Senate before that happens.
If it does happen—and that remains a strong possibility— what began this week in an atmosphere of determined crossparty harmony may yet turn sour. Lott held out the possibility that the entire trial might be wrapped up by Feb. 5 or 12 (awkwardly, it will be ongoing when Clinton delivers his annual state of the union address to Congress on Jan. 19, unless he decides to postpone it until afterwards). But if witnesses are allowed, it could be prolonged for many more weeks. If, for example, the Senate allows the House prosecutors to call witnesses, White House lawyers are certain to fight every step of the way and insist on calling witnesses of their own. Weeks could be consumed in taking depositions from witnesses, or filing legal motions challenging testimony against Clinton. “This is a minefield,” said Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona. “Things can blow up in this process.” Byron Dorgan, a Democratic senator from North Dakota, warned that allowing witnesses may push the trial well into spring. “I don’t want a four-month trial,” he said, “and that’s where you’re going if you go down that road.”
Amid all the to-ing and fro-ing, however, it was easy to forget that there is still very little chance that Clinton will be convicted. Whether in two weeks, two months or longer, senators will eventually have to stand by their desks and answer as the chief justice asks each in turn: “Is the respondent, William Jefferson Clinton, guilty or not guilty?” It would take 67 senators to convict the President, meaning that at least a dozen of the 45 Democrats would have to join all 55 Republicans to throw him out of office. Barring a totally unforeseen turn of events, then, Clinton will be acquitted. All the procedural twisting of last week and the weeks to come is, in the end, simply about how to get from here to there. □
In the age of Monica Lewinsky, it might not be considered an advantage for a woman to be known around Washington as “Sugar Lips.” But Elizabeth Hanford Dole, wife of Bob and a rising political force in her own right, won the nickname the old-fashioned way—through her ability to sweet-talk legislators into seeing things her way. For 32 years, she has taken on a succession of increasingly important jobs in Washington, culminating last week in her decision to quit as president of the American Red Cross and, almost certainly, seek the Republican presidential nomination next year. If she goes ahead, she will be one of only a handful of women to run for president. And for a party that has struggled to win support among female voters, that alone is enough to create an instant bubble of support for her. Early polls show her running second
behind Texas Gov. George W. Bush among likely Republican candidates.
Dole, 62, has held an array of toplevel administrative jobs, including transportation secretary in the Reagan administration, labour secretary under Bush’s father, George Sr., and head of the $2.1 -bi 11 ion-a-year (U.S.) Red Cross. But she has never been elected to anything, and her positions on most controversial issues are unclear or unstated. She has charisma and strong name recognition, but voters have no clear idea of where she stands. She has close ties to the Christian right and is pro-life on abortion, factors that may alienate moderate women who might be expected to welcome a female candidate for president. She also has the enthusiastic support of her ex-senator husband, Bob, the Republicans’ unsuccessful 1996 candidate who has carved out a late-career role for himself as avuncular humorist and celebrity salesman. If Elizabeth Dole does run, her husband may have to reconsider some of the lucrative contracts he has signed to promote an array of products— notably the male potency pill Viagra.
The contest for the Republican nomination is already getting crowded. Missouri Senator John Ashcroft, a favourite of Christian conservatives, said last week he will not run, leaving a potential opening on the right. But several others are preparing bids—including conservative activist Gary Bauer, former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, publisher Steve Forbes and former vice-president Dan Quayle. Bush is also engaged in public pondering about a presidential run, and would enter the race as the clear favourite. Aside from Dole, the strongest new entry is Arizona Senator John McCain, who has set up an exploratory committee to raise money for a campaign. Experts say serious candidates will need at least $20 million (U.S.) by the end of 1999.
McCain, also 62, is a pro-life conservative who may be more popular with the general public than he is with the Republican activists who choose candidates in primary elections. A U.S. navy pilot, he spent 5V2 years in a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp. When he first ran for Congress in 1982, his opponent challenged him as an out-of-state carpetbagger. McCain replied that “the place I’ve lived longest is Hanoi”—a remark that silenced his critics. He has a consistent conservative voting record in the Senate, but has alienated key Republican interests by supporting campaign finance reform and fighting the tobacco industry. And he has a past: his first marriage fell apart after he returned from Vietnam and cheated on his wife. That, however, may not much matter. McCain plans to tell his story next fall in an autobiography titled Faith of My Fathers, burnishing his aura asa bona fide war hero. In that area, even the sweet-talking Dole can’t compete.