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Trial Journal:
Prosecutors Defend Their Convictions

Clinton on Trial

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  • By David Von Drehle
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, February 9, 1999; Page A4

    At times defiant, at times reflective, at times self-pitying, the House impeachment managers brought their case against President Clinton to a thunderous conclusion yesterday.

    They pounded fists, jabbed fingers, raised their voices to the heavens and lowered them to dire whispers. They spoke of forefathers and future generations, of their lives and the lives of their children. They quoted Shakespeare, Edward Gibbon, Martin Luther King Jr., Ronald Reagan, angry schoolchildren and an Eritrean immigrant.

    These 13 men, all Republicans, have been the face of impeachment since autumn, first as members of the House Judiciary Committee and, for the past six weeks, as the president's prosecutors. "We've been congratulated and we've been condemned," Rep. Chris Cannon of Utah told the Senate. "But we are done."

    One by one they spoke, nearly three hours in all, the least eloquent and least popular of them going early and the stars -- Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, James E. Rogan of California, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina -- paving the way for a final peroration by Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde of Illinois.

    One last time they laid out the case against Clinton -- four specific statements to a federal grand jury that, the managers argued, were lies; multiple acts in December 1997 and January 1998 that, the managers contended, were intended to obstruct justice.

    But the presentations were as much a defense, an explanation on their own behalf -- an apologia, philosophers might say -- as a prosecution. It was clear from their remarks that they expect to lose this case. So they addressed themselves not just to 100 senators, but to future voters, and to posterity.

    Rep. Hutchinson, for one, had this larger audience in mind. As he said before he took the floor: "I . . . want to say a few things to the people of Arkansas and why I took this responsibility. I'm also explaining for history why I'm doing this."

    Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. went first, and his appearance was a reminder of how many hours and how many words have passed since the trial began a month ago. He spoke the first day and has been silent since, even though he is second only to Hyde in seniority on the committee. Appropriately, he began by reintroducing himself.

    He was a reminder too of how much the managers have changed tone through the trial. That first-day speech had been notably dry and abstruse, full of citations to court precedents and the United States Code. Yesterday, Sensenbrenner was plain-spoken, down-to-earth, ticked off and defensive.

    "The news media characterizes the managers as 13 angry men," he said forcefully, his flat Wisconsin accents whanging off the chamber walls. "They are right in that we are angry, but they are dead wrong about what we are angry about. We have not spent long hours poring through the evidence, sacrificed time with our families, and subjected ourselves to intense political criticism to further a political vendetta. . . .

    "This constitutional crisis was caused by William Jefferson Clinton and by no one else."

    Cannon came next, and excoriated the Senate for various procedural decisions along the way: the decision to have no live witnesses; the decision to limit the time allowed for presentations; the decision not to permit a rebuttal by the House after the defense made its case.

    "The process gave rise to the perception that the fix was in," Cannon charged, "leaving some to gloat at having scammed the situation, and others angry at being unheard."

    Rep. George W. Gekas of Pennsylvania was another who had been on the bench for weeks, but time had little changed his distinctive extemporaneous approach. Fervent, if not entirely clear, he literally clutched at the air as he improvised in Latin and called the American people to his side. He drew a laugh when, while chewing the scenery, he cast a glance at the managers' table, stopped mid-munch and said, "Somebody's waving: 'Cut this short.' "

    Ohio's Rep. Steve Chabot recalled his days at the College of William and Mary and his disillusionment with the pardon of Richard M. Nixon. Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. of Georgia -- the earliest and perhaps fiercest of the impeachment hawks -- dared the senators to do their duty, saying that their vote "will tell whether these seats will continue to be occupied by true statesmen."

    After Rep. Steve Buyer of Indiana spoke, the managers surprised the defense team by yielding the lectern and saving the rest of their time for rebuttal. When White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff began his presentation, he adopted the complaining tone, protesting about "that kind of prosecutorial gambit."

    By the end of Ruff's nearly two-hour, point-by-point presentation, more than a dozen senators were standing at the rear of the chamber -- apparently unable to bear the straight-backed chairs any longer.

    Then it was back to the managers: Rep. Bill McCollum of Florida not only quoting Shakespeare but announcing that he was quoting Shakespeare; another Florida representative, Charles T. Canady, his voice rising almost to a furious cry; Tennessee's Rep. Edward G. Bryant, the committee nice guy, who insisted almost pleadingly that "we're not trying to win at all costs."

    There was Hutchinson, cogent as always, but in his final appearance, he added a dripping sarcasm. Then came square-jawed Rep. Rogan of California, who said before the session, "I tried to write my final speech for today, but I'm all speeched out. I couldn't come up with anything."

    He did fine. He told of his boyhood dream to be a congressman, then acknowledged that his district has more Democrats than Republicans in it, and his work as a manager could cost him his seat. "Dreams come and dreams go," he said, "but conscience is forever."

    It was an emotional group of men. As the afternoon wore into evening, their praise of one another grew more lavish, their sense of being besieged grew deeper. Even folksy Rep. Graham was almost spitting by the end.

    Hyde closed for the managers with a standard Hyde speech, bookish, patriotic, high-flown. He summed up his team's feelings of injury and honor in his beginning and in his end.

    "I've gone through it all by your side," Hyde told his compatriots: "the media condemnations, the patronizing editorials, the hate mail, the insults hurled in public, the attempts at intimidation, the death threats, and even the disapproval of our colleagues, which cuts the worst."

    And he ended, praising what they'd done: "To my House managers, your great enterprise was not to speak truth to power, but to shout it."

    Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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