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Clinton Acquitted

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  • By David Von Drehle
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, February 13, 1999; Page A1

    The impeachment trial of President Clinton ended as it began, in a sober and formal proceeding of little mystery but great power. Dark-suited senators – every single one of them present and attentive – sat stiffly at their desks. The Chief Justice of the United States read elaborate passages from an antique-sounding script. The galleries were packed with hushed citizens.

    Yes, the outcome was known before the voting began, but that didn't diminish the sense of history in the making. More than a dozen senators marked long, narrow cardboard strips that Senate clerks use to record roll-call votes. They were keeping track of each impeachment vote. Senators do not tally votes – they have people to do such things.

    Today, however, they were creating souvenirs.

    At his desk over on the far wing of the Democratic side of the Senate, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) thought about "the historic importance" of the final voting on the second presidential impeachment in American history. He is low on the totem poll, a member of the minority with two years in the Senate, but now he would have at least a toehold in the American saga: "My name will now be buried in some footnote in history as one of the senators who voted on impeachment in 1999."

    Polls have shown . . . and shown . . . and shown . . . that the American people were not gripped by the impeachment drama. But the people of Capitol Hill have cared deeply. If you happen to be the sort to choose politics for a living, no number of sneering polls can convince you that a presidential impeachment is not dramatic. You might fake an air of boredom when speaking about the matter with civilians, but if you could possibly get a ticket to be in the chamber for the final vote – of course you would.

    And so the press gallery was packed to double capacity, with scores of reporters standing in the aisles. Senate staff members crowded every available seat on the floor. There were three Kennedy women in the front row of one balcony. What more could be said?

    Perhaps this: Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) told senators yesterday that the collected impeachment prayers of Chaplain Lloyd Ogilvie will be bound into a keepsake pamphlet.

    President Clinton was going to be acquitted. Senate leaders have known that for months. As the senators made their way to their desks yesterday, no one even tried to suggest otherwise. Here was big Sen. Robert C. Smith (N.H.), the rock-ribbed Republican from the Granite State, no friend of Clinton – not by a long shot – shaking hands and chatting with Clinton attorney David E. Kendall. This was before the voting. Smith cast many a narrow glance Kendall's way during the impeachment trial, but now it was time to say, hey, no hard feelings.

    More Republicans came by to greet Kendall. Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), who would vote to convict the president on both articles, paid his respects with a smile, and then Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who would also vote twice to throw the president out of office, shared a laugh with the Clinton defender.

    Similar graciousness was on display around the chamber – Republicans greeting Democrats, senators consoling House members. Blood may be boiling behind the scenes – time will tell – but in public a senator is a good sport.

    The final scene of the trial of the president was gaveled to order a few minutes after noon. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist immediately recognized Lott, who read from a script. "I believe we are ready to proceed to the vote on the articles," his speech concluded, "and I yield the floor."

    Rehnquist warned the galleries to remain silent, and the first Article of Impeachment was read, charging Clinton with perjury, through which he "has undermined the integrity of his office, has brought disrepute on the Presidency, has betrayed his trust as President, and has acted in a manner subversive of the rule of law and justice, to the manifest injury of the people of the United States."

    Then the chief justice instructed the senators to stand by their desks when their names are called and vote either "guilty" or "not guilty." "Senators," he intoned, "how say you?"

    It was quiet as a church on Ash Wednesday as one by one the senators rose. They straightened their shoulders and steadied their gaze. Some clasped their hands before them; others rested their fingers on their desks. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) stood with his arms at his side like a statue, or a choirboy reciting the books of the Bible in order, and said "not guilty" with a solemnity that might have been funny if he had not been so earnest.

    Some spoke loudly – Sens. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.). Some seemed almost to whisper – Hatch and Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.). Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) seemed to bow slightly as he cast his votes of guilty.

    Everything went smoothly until Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) defied the Rehnquist instruction and cast his own idiosyncratic vote: "not proved, therefore not guilty." Through scores of names, the clerk had repeated each vote, but he didn't seem to know what to do with this one and so forged ahead.

    And the press gallery buzzed a bit when Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, the supremely Republican chairman of the supremely influential Appropriations Committee, quietly cast a not guilty vote on the perjury charge.

    The second article went by quickly. Lott had worked hard in recent days, according to associates, to preserve a majority to convict the president on at least one count. He didn't quite make it. On the obstruction of justice charge, the vote was 50-50.

    Rehnquist gave a short, well-shaped speech praising the Senate, and in return Lott presented him with a plaque honoring his service. The Golden Gavel is awarded to anyone who has presided 100 hours in the Senate, Lott said. "I'm not sure it quite reached a hundred hours," he said of the trial . . .

    And the chief justice muttered, "seemed like it!"

    Laughter, applause, smiles of relief. After Rehnquist and the House impeachment managers were given formal escorts from the chamber, a similar courtesy was proposed for the White House lawyers. Lott laughed and pointed to the back way out. "There's the door!" he joked.

    Milling about. Chatter. Handshakes. Over the din, a motion of censure was objected to as out of order, whereupon it was moved to suspend the rules, which led to a counter-motion to postpone indefinitely . . . and now the Senate was back to business.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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