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From the Institution's Preeminent Protector, a Clarion Call

Sen. Robert Byrd Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) said he will offer a motion to dismiss the impeachment charges against President Clinton. (Reuters File Photo)

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  • By Guy Gugliotta
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, January 23, 1999; Page A13

    If any other Democrat but Sen. Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.) had called for dismissal of the impeachment case against President Clinton, Republicans would have rejected the move as nothing but impotent partisan grandstanding.

    But Byrd, as every one of his colleagues understands, is the soul of the U.S. Senate, a dapper, white-maned patriarch who is the recognized authority on subjects from chamber decorum and the line-item veto to impeachment.

    So when he speaks, it is not a partisan whisper, but a thunderclap. And when he made his announcement yesterday, it was widely interpreted as a clear sign that the Senate's appetite for impeachment may be evaporating.

    For Byrd, it was a dramatic, even shocking, gesture from a senator regarded by his Democratic colleagues as a "maverick" or a "wild card," a man so committed to the Senate as an institution and to the constitutional impeachment process that he was believed immune to the blandishments of either his party or his president.

    But in an interview a few days before the trial began, Byrd described how he viewed impeachment and what he was looking for in an impeachment trial. If he did not find it, he suggested, his paramount wish would be to preserve the integrity of a constitutional tool he regarded as a dire, but necessary, "sword of Damocles" poised to punish a president for serious wrongdoing.

    "Impeachment is a way to remove from office people who constitute a political threat to the state," Byrd said. "It is important that we try to conduct ourselves in a way that will reflect well on the Senate, on the Constitution, and that will preserve the concept for future generations."

    That he chose simply to seek dismissal of the charges indicated -- as the rest of his colleagues well know -- that he does not believe Clinton's sins are even worthy enough to be tested in an up-and-down vote. And if he says so, other senators will listen.

    Byrd, now 81, the self-educated son of a West Virginia coal miner, has been in the Senate since 1959. He has served as minority leader, majority leader, president pro tempore and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

    He has written a four-volume history of the Senate, can recite the names of all the kings of England dating from Cerdic (519-534 A.D.) and used to entertain his colleagues with Appalachian favorites played on a country fiddle.

    Impeachment, he said, "goes back almost 700 years, beginning with the impeachment of Richard Lyons, a customs officer in England," said Byrd, beginning, as he usually does, at the beginning. "That's L-Y-O-N-S."

    The original idea, Byrd said, was to give the House of Commons a mechanism to get rid of corrupt public officials when they couldn't get rid of the king. The Founding Fathers lifted the concept "right out of the English experience," he said, because they needed a safeguard against the malfeasance of an elected executive in their new republic.

    He scoffed at colleagues who have said that Clinton's transgressions do or do not "rise to the level of impeachable offenses," because "90 percent of those people haven't studied history going back to the Framers." Byrd, of course, has.

    He said an "impeachable offense," in his view, "need not be an indictable crime," but must be a "political crime." The difference, he said, is a "major question in this instance." By his action yesterday, he appeared to have found his answer.

    Another aspect of the Clinton case that distressed him at the trial's outset was "the obviously political partisan coloration that obscured everything as it came out of the House." When the Constitution was written, "there were no political parties," he said, and "the [impeachment] provision was not to be tainted by a judgment that was partisan."

    And even at the outset, Byrd had little interest in calling witnesses, regarding the "massive record of 6,000 pages" as sufficient. Witnesses would be time-consuming, he said, and "would cause the most bitter divisions in the Senate."

    Above all, that must not be allowed. "We need to be conscious of this," he said. "It is not what happens to William Jefferson Clinton so much as it is what happens to the Constitution, to this institution and to us as protectors of the Constitution and our liberties."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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