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Sense of History May Pull Senate Together

Lieberman and Lott Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), right, talks with Majority Leader Trent Lott. Lieberman worries that Democrats will be seen as "the party that doesn't know the difference between right and wrong." (Robert A. Reeder — The Post)

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  • By David Von Drehle and Helen Dewar
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Sunday, January 31, 1999; Page A1

    The impeachment trial of President Clinton, now entering what could be its final phase, can be divided into three distinct struggles.

    There is the obvious fight to oust Clinton from office. This battle appears to be over, now that 44 Senate Democrats are on record as wanting to dismiss the case. It takes just 34 votes to save Clinton's presidency.

    There is a fierce competition for advantage in the 2000 elections.

    There is the struggle to look good in the long view of history. This quieter, less overt combat could add an interesting twist to the story. The first two struggles have polarized the political parties as Clinton's ratings have soared. The bid for history, on the other hand, might pull them together, if only for a moment at Clinton's expense.

    Clinton's interest in his legacy is legendary. But he isn't the only one concerned about the judgment of history. Many Republicans have said they are going into this next phase of the drama hoping to prove to posterity that the impeachment was fully justified, not mere partisan venom.

    "The label that the White House is trying to pin on the Republicans is that we are on a witch hunt, that we have no agenda and that we try to win elections through investigation and smear," said Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), who has delved deeply into the history of impeachments. Obviously, he rejects this characterization. However, he allowed, "that is the label we risk taking on if we don't handle this well."

    Many Democrats, who have closed ranks to protect the president, still want a chance to censure Clinton. Why? Because otherwise they "risk being seen as accepting unacceptable behavior, as the party that doesn't know the difference between right and wrong," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.).

    Bennett puts the question more pointedly: Will the towering figures on the Democratic side of the aisle men like Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York and Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia be "willing to wink at serious crimes"?

    Senators from both parties, meanwhile, have stressed their desire to look better fairer, more dignified, less partisan than the House of Representatives, where the chamber rang with shouts and jeers the day Articles of Impeachment were passed on virtual party-line votes.

    "If we can be judged to have been fair and evenhanded in the process and procedures, that's very important," Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) explained. "If we're seen as trying to impose rules that are designed to rig the process to the advantage of the House managers, then we deserve to be criticized."

    The interests of the Republicans and the interests of the Democrats are opposite ends of a seesaw. The more Republicans succeed in showing that the impeachment is a serious matter, the worse Democrats look for protecting Clinton. On the other hand, the more Democrats succeed in persuading Americans that the case is "the most blatant vindictive political act toward a president that we've ever had," in the words of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the more noble Clinton's defenders will look.

    But the third, shared, interest the desire to make the Senate, and each senator, look good for history pulls them away from the teeter-totter, and toward a compromise in which Clinton receives some official rebuke even as he hangs on to his office. Bennett sketched it this way: A bipartisan censure could address each party's political needs. The Democrats could distance themselves from Clinton's behavior, and Republicans could conclude the long, bitter combat on a note of placid statesmanship.

    "Let's say . . . there are 30 to 40 Democrats who are seriously troubled at the idea of letting this president off scot-free," Bennett said. Their votes, added to a majority of the Republicans, would send a strong signal to future historians. "A motion to express their dismay, no matter how it is worded, is a significant historical document."

    According to Lieberman, an early public critic of Clinton's behavior, this vision of a shared interest is the force that kept leaders of both parties talking last week, even as one vote after another left them starkly divided.

    "There's a real potential for common ground at the end of the trial," Lieberman said, "although many will come to that common ground from different places. The Constitution and the law doesn't give us an option that we're totally comfortable with." To remove Clinton from office would be "extreme," but "just leaving it at that is totally inadequate because it sends a message to our children and to history that the president's behavior was acceptable."

    Who loses in this scenario? Clinton. Obviously, he would prefer to enter the history books as a man acquitted of charges brought by a partisan House, rather than as a man rebuked by a unified Senate.

    Republicans vs. Democrats, Senate vs. House, president vs. the Senate. Even inside the parties there are factions: between Democrats friendly to Clinton and those furious at him; between Republicans intent on pushing impeachment to the bitter end and those who feel zealots have hooked the party to a plunging anchor.

    Ultimately, the forces driving them apart may be too powerful to resist. Cochran predicted that the high point for bipartisanship in the Senate will probably be the unanimous agreement to get the trial underway. The trial will end with a party-line vote, he believes and his party will be all right.

    "I think the proceeding has been, in everybody's mind, fair and it's because the Republican majority insisted it be fair and it was fair in a way that was agreed to by all the Democratic senators," he said.

    Harkin, too, believes the story will end with the parties hunkered down and that will be fine for his side.

    "It will be looked upon as an investigation into sexual proclivities and an impeachment that was blatantly political," he said.

    Throughout the trial, senators of all stripes have made appeals to history. Here's liberal Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), a former chairman of his party: "It's going to be hard not to put a partisan label on this for all of history." Here's Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), a conservative who once ran for the GOP presidential nomination: "In a world where there seems to be a conspiracy theory about everything, we owe it to history to get the facts out."

    And so forth.

    But history belongs to the future. "One thing about history," said David McCullough, prize-winning biographer of Harry S. Truman, "What seems to be important at the time is not always the big story." While the impeachment of a president will certainly matter to history, he said, it's far too soon to say how the story will look years, and even centuries, from now.

    All that can be said with confidence today is that the trial of Clinton will be a precedent for the next presidential impeachment, whenever that may be. The 1868 trial of Andrew Johnson, hardly a hot subject for historians in recent years, was pulled out and dusted off to become the template for this trial.

    There are partisan differences even on this issue, which showed up when the Democrats moved to dismiss the impeachment after the opening statements and two days of questions. Like many Democrats, Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (N.J.) worried that history's verdict will focus on "an uncertain standard for impeachment" left by the charges.

    Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) expressed the GOP view. The key thing, she said, is that future Congresses be able to adopt this trial as a model. "And I think finishing the trial is very important for history."

    For the next generation at least, several historians advised, readers can expect to see the impeachment war fought again and again, by dedicated partisans, in books, essays and letters to the editor. Aging survivors of the Red Scare are still arguing over Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers half a century after the controversial spy case.

    "You have to let the dust settle," said McCullough. "Truman used to say it takes 50 years to understand what really happened."

    Over time, historians will sift through the documents and luxuriate in the arguments that have so deeply divided the parties and irritated the country. The memoirs, complaints, confessions and motives of the bitter antagonists will fascinate them equally. The furor will evaporate, followed by memories of the furor, until only the substance is left.

    Gradually, those who care to look will be able to see the big picture, a sweep of history in which a presidential impeachment in 1999 is just one element. A symptom, perhaps, of some trend or impulse America is living through but doesn't yet understand. The writers will bring their own biases and world views to the story; perhaps it will become fodder in some new political war impossible now to imagine.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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