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  • By Joel Achenbach
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, December 18, 1998; Page D01

    In a corner of the Speaker's Lobby, an ornate parlor just outside the House chamber, Ed Markey stood under a gold-framed mirror the size of a movie screen, looking rueful. If this were a secret ballot, said the lanky Democrat from Massachusetts, a third of the Republicans would vote against impeaching Bill Clinton. But it's not and they won't. The lesson for history, he said, is that this is what happens when a radical minority takes control of a political party.

    "What the Republicans have done this year is return to a medieval form of sentencing for moral offenses," he said. He had just seen the new movie "Elizabeth," about England in the 16th century, he said. No matter what you did wrong, no matter what level of offense you committed, you got beheaded, or burned at the stake.

    That was a Democrat talking, at lunchtime. The bombshell confession from the speaker-elect was a few hours away. For the moment, the phrase "moral offenses" was still synonymous with the life of Bill Clinton. The Capitol was throbbing with indignation but not yet wracked in full fetal-position embarrassment.

    Upstairs, in the plush office of the chairman of the Rules Committee, Gerald Solomon had his own historical lesson to offer.

    "Twenty years from now, the essayists, the history books will all focus on the Constitution, and the fact that the president broke a law," the Republican said.

    He's traveled all over Eastern Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Solomon said. The "rule of law" is not some dry, abstract, trite idea as far as he's concerned. "The difference between us and those newly emerging sovereignties is that we live by the rule of law. That's the only reason we've survived as a democracy."

    What's happening on the Hill this week is more than an up-or-down vote on the future of Bill Clinton. A battle is being fought for history's sanction. The lawmakers seem to realize that what matters is not merely what they do, but how they do it, what they say in the process, whether they can make a compelling case that they are taking the honorable path. These people know that history is not a neutral observer. It's not just a list of factual incidents, dates, names, titles and won-loss records. History judges.

    Andrew Johnson got impeached and survived by a single vote, but history didn't record him as a bad man. The books say he got jobbed by partisan enemies during Reconstruction. The moral: Politics is a vicious game.

    At one point this week Ann Richards, the former Democratic governor of Texas, stood on Independence Avenue, pausing while getting into a cab even as a truck honked repeatedly behind her, and said the Clinton case will go down precisely like Johnson's. "It was a vendetta to get him from the day he was sworn in!" she shouted.

    In contrast to Johnson, Richard Nixon, the only other president to face a serious impeachment threat, is blamed for his own demise. The history books say he was a flawed man who kept lists of his enemies and operated at times like a mobster. The moral: Bad things happen to bad people.

    Now comes the case of Clinton, with the moral of the story up for grabs. Even as the Congress is apparently split neatly along partisan lines, it's also generating some of its most carefully reasoned, heartfelt, nuanced rhetoric. For one of the few times in their careers these men and women can hold a news conference at which the national news media will show up in force. C-SPAN will televise their words, live. The reporters will pay attention and won't wander off in the middle of the speech. It is a perfect moment for statesmanship. Some rise to it. They quote from academic works and scripture. There are moments when it appears they haven't even calculated which line will be the sound bite.

    Yet every time the Clinton-Lewinsky saga threatens to actually achieve some level of lofty sentiment, it collapses back into farce. Bob Livingston, the speaker-elect, is revealed to be a serial adulterer on the eve of the historic vote on whether to impeach the president for lying about adultery. At least, Livingston said, he never did it with anyone on his staff. Also, he said, "I have never been asked to testify under oath about them," he said, the "them" being the "indiscretions."

    It was just another day in Sodom-on-the-Potomac. The farce problem may make it hard for some lawmakers to keep a straight face when debate begins today. But if anyone can do it, they can.

    Jim Leach, Republican from Iowa, this week ended his own soul-searching with a declaration that "I have no choice" but to vote for the president's impeachment. He said Clinton lied under oath, and oaths matter. Leach, who has always had an easy-going, ultra-moderate reputation -- he is a soft-spoken man who is fond of wearing sweaters -- said that the debate comes down to the difference between relativism and absolutism. On some things, he is an absolutist.

    "Lying under oath amounts to an absolute breach of an absolute standard," Leach said.

    Another moderate Republican who had been leaning against impeachment, John Edward Porter, changed his mind, and he too brought out the lofty talk of the sanctity of the courtroom. The Illinois Republican told a reporter, "All our freedoms depend upon the rule of law. And that depends upon truth. And particularly truth in the courtroom."

    Porter is a lawyer, as are something like a third of the members of Congress. He said that lawyers may be particularly sensitive to the perjury allegations against Clinton. "Lawyers are in courtrooms. They know that our society lives according to standards expressed through law," he said.

    Robert Wexler, Democrat, heard some of the rule-of-law remarks from the moderate Republicans and found them suspicious.

    "How could it be that every so-called moderate Republican who comes out for impeachment seems to say the same thing? Almost the same words! That's very curious," he said.

    A procedural matter may help those who would advance the Partisan Coup story line. The Republicans are not allowing a vote on the lesser punishment of censure. Rep. Richard Gephardt, the minority leader, said Wednesday as he rushed through a hallway of the Capitol, "If they don't give us the censure alternative it is, clearly, by anyone's definition, partisan and unfair in the highest degree."

    What will history say?

    Mark Foley, Republican: "You can't lie in the jury."

    Melvin Watt, Democrat: "People will ridicule it a lot more vigorously than they ridiculed the Andrew Johnson impeachment."

    History must also deal with the bombing in Iraq, with its peculiar echo of a Hollywood movie. These have been strange days. As one congressional staffer put it yesterday, "We now know what it's like to live in a Third World country, where day to day we don't know if we're going to be at peace or war or who our leader will be."

    The Democrats have one burden the Republicans are free of: They have Bill Clinton on their side. They defend the president even as they are forced to say, in phrases appended to virtally every sentence, that in some situations he has been a very bad man. He engaged in various extramarital sex acts in and around the Oval Office with what the articles of impeachment refer to as "a subordinate Government employee." The articles of impeachment do not name Monica Lewinsky nor detail the actions that took place. In a sense, the case is unspeakable.

    The defenders of the president argue that he only dissembled about an extramarital affair, as many people would. But although that may seem sensible in most venues -- in "real life," for example -- on Capitol Hill the everyone-does-it argument lacks rhetorical grandeur. In a place full of marble statues and engraved quotations, where people routinely take oaths and speak of their duty under the Constitution, it is tricky to articulate an argument based on the forgivable defectiveness of the human spirit rather than on its noblest aspirations.

    At the rally yesterday on the west side of the Capitol, Jesse Jackson did his best to make that point with lofty words. "This act of sex indiscretion, being less than candid . . . is a low crime, a sin, not a high crime, not a threat to our national security. . . . His behavior was wrong, but all too human."

    Perhaps the story line that emerges over time will be that the most minor and trivial event can grow and mutate into a drama that changes the world. It has been said that a single assassination in Austria in 1914 led, through diplomatic bumbling and belligerence, to the horrors of World War I. Scientists who talk of "chaos theory" will declare that the beating of a butterfly's wings in China can eventually lead to a hurricane in the Atlantic. In this case, the American Spectator wrote a story saying Bill Clinton used state troopers to procure girlfriends, including one named "Paula," which led Paula Jones to surface and say she wasn't a girlfriend but the victim of sexual harassment, which led to a lawsuit, which led, chaotically, to witness lists, Monica Lewinsky, Linda Tripp, secret tapes, depositions, Kenneth Starr, the grand jury, and finally an impeachment vote.

    There is a final historical possibility -- that somehow it will blow over. For all the gravity of the House vote, the House cannot remove the president from office. The Framers, gone for centuries, seem to have anticipated such agonizing conflicts. "History will be written in the Senate," offered Clay Shaw, a Republican from Florida.

    And if the Senate doesn't remove Clinton?

    "If he's not kicked out, it's a ho-hum," said Stephen Ambrose.

    Ambrose is a historian. He wrote a three-volume biography of Richard Nixon and a two-volume biography of Dwight Eisenhower. Bill Clinton, Ambrose said, doesn't come close to either man in historical stature. No one will write a three-volume biography of Clinton, he said.

    "We're in a situation now where the presidency is not that important anyway. We're not at war with a major power. We're not in a major depression," the historian said. "Who the president is doesn't make that much difference."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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