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Prosecutor Calls Removal a Tough Call

Lindsey Graham Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the House managers, answers questions in the Senate Saturday. (C-SPAN2)

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  • By David Von Drehle
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, January 24, 1999; Page A17

    In the midst of all the bitterness yesterday the blown Democratic gaskets over the return of Kenneth W. Starr to center stage, the huffy response of House Republicans, the sideshow of Monica S. Lewinsky's return to Washington an outstretched hand.

    Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the prosecution team, allowed that reasonable people can disagree on whether the president should be removed from office.

    It passed by fairly quickly and, given the hubbub, was easy to miss. Sens. Herbert Kohl (D-Wis.) and John Edwards (D-N.C.) had posed a modulated question on a hyperbolic day. The impeachment, they observed, has been argued in absolutes. One side says President Clinton must be thrown out of office. The other side asserts that the entire proceeding is a sham.

    "It strikes many of us as a closer call," the senators wrote and the chief justice read aloud. "Can reasonable people disagree with the conclusion that, as a matter of law, he must be convicted and removed from office?"

    Graham rose from the prosecution table, struck his usual friendly, boyish stance at the lectern and answered: "Absolutely."

    From there he meandered a bit. He insisted the perjury charge against Clinton is not trivial. He reckoned that obstruction of justice is surely a "high crime."

    "But I would be the first to admit that the Constitution is silent on this question about whether or not every high crime has to result in removal," he said. "And if I was sitting where you're at, I would probably get down on my knees before I made that decision. . ... And you got to consider what's best for this nation."

    His answer was not entirely satisfying to his colleagues in the prosecution. Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), a hard driver on the impeachment trail, began signaling that he would love to chime in. "I will yield to Mr. Buyer in a second," Graham said.

    "But the point is," he continued, "that I'm trying to make as not articulately as I can is that I know how hard that decision is. And it's always been hard for me. And it's never been hard to find out whether Bill Clinton committed perjury or whether he obstructed justice. That ain't a hard one for me. But when you take the good of this nation, the upside and the downside, reasonable people can disagree on what we should do."

    Graham has been the Hamlet of this impeachment, wrestling his way toward certainty in a series of long, compelling soliloquies. His framing of the dilemma several months ago "Is this Watergate, or is it Peyton Place?" has been as close as anyone has come in this drama to "To be, or not to be?"

    Like Hamlet, Graham has registered as a very human figure in a tragedy full of schemers, blowhards, stalking horses and madness. Like Hamlet, his on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand speeches may grow exasperating. And, like Hamlet, he is the character who keeps surprising.

    The Democrats snapped up the olive branch and began whapping their opponents on the head with it. In questions on the floor and in interviews after the Senate adjourned, the phrase echoed: "As Mr. Manager Graham has said, reasonable people can disagree . . ." Don't be surprised if you hear it on every Sunday morning chat show.

    Graham seemed unfazed. "Maybe I oversold it for some people or went too far," he said in an interview after delivering his jolt.

    "I sleep well having voted for impeachment," he said. "I think he's a perjurer and he obstructed justice and he did it in a mean way." And he feels strongly that the Senate should allow witnesses to be called; otherwise, "you'll never get the flavor of what he did, how mean it was planting lies about his consensual lover how calculated, which goes to the question of whether he should be in office."

    Graham is a third-termer, part of the castle-storming Class of 1994, a Jacobin for whom Newt Gingrich was too timid. He joined the 1997 conspiracy to dump the former speaker of the House.

    Impeachment, however, has elevated him from the pack of House Republicans. The camera loves him and that love is requited. He makes jokes, tells stories, says "ain't."

    "Baptists love repentance," Graham declared in response to another question yesterday. "I'm a Baptist. In my church everybody gets saved about every other week."

    His Watergate-Peyton Place quote first made him a star.

    "The deeper I've gone into this, the more I think it's a little of both," he said in the interview. "Clinton's conduct toward the judicial system is as out of bounds as Nixon's toward the electoral system." He believes that if the Senate will only go deeper, it will reach the same conclusion.

    Still . . .

    "You don't have to agree with Lindsey Graham to care about your country," he says. "No matter how they vote, I'm not going to go out and politicize this."

    Of course, given the climate of public opinion, it could be that a leader of the impeachment effort is more fearful than feared. The GOP's poor showing in the November elections, plus the continuing popularity of Clinton, don't add up to positive vibes right now for the dwindling Republican House majority.

    Graham recently predicted in a fund-raising letter to his supporters that "as visibility increases for many Republicans due to the impeachment process, the likelihood for opposition in the next election also increases."

    Will he be remembered as a man of principle who tried to respect his opponents? A civil voice in the middle of a knife fight? Or will he find himself unemployed in a couple of years, like so many others who got famous by opposing this president?

    Reasonable people can disagree.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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