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Day of Dialogue Aimed at Key Voting Bloc

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  • By Guy Gugliotta and Juliet Eilperin
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Wednesday, December 9, 1998; Page A1

    The Democrats said sex wasn't serious enough, not even if President Clinton lied about it, and it didn't matter if he wasn't sorry enough. They said it was cowardly for the House to vote impeachment and hope the Senate would pull the plug. They said impeachment would hurt the world economy, cripple the Senate, clutter William H. Rehnquist's agenda and bring the ship of state to a grinding halt for months. Censure him instead, they said, or punish him after he leaves office.

    But if impeachment is what you want, former representative (and Rev.) Robert J. Drinan (D-Mass.) cautioned Republicans, "there's going to be a big popular uprising against this process."

    Committee Republicans were not afraid. Perjury is perjury, they said, even about sex: "I think lying about sex is a very serious," said Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.). "I think lying, period, if it's under oath [is serious], and I think that's the real issue before us here. It is not about sex."

    Hour after hour yesterday, the members of the House Judiciary Committee used the president's witnesses – first scholars, then Watergate-era lawmakers and finally former Watergate investigators – to carry on a dialogue with some 20 to 30 swing votes in the House – Republican moderates who could determine the fate of the president.

    Impeachment by the Republican-dominated committee was a "done deal," said Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), but "I hope and believe and pray" that there are "those Republicans" who "still have an open mind.

    "Talk to them," Wexler implored the scholars' panel. "Talk to them about what a Senate trial is going to look like."

    Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman complied. He noted that the trial – virtually inevitable once the House passes impeachment articles – is a solemn process, where senators must sit silently as a jury, day after day, week after week. How could senators manage that, he asked. Some people laughed.

    Ackerman didn't. "This is nothing like we have ever seen," Ackerman responded. "It will disrupt the nation's business, I think, for a year."

    The Democrats had the advantage all day, for the witnesses were chosen by the White House and were eloquently sympathetic to the president's cause. Perhaps too eloquent in some cases.

    Princeton historian Sean Wilentz said that if a member voted for impeachment and didn't mean it, "history will track you down and condemn you for your cravenness," provoking rage from Rep. George W. Gekas (R-Pa.) who branded Wilentz's admonition as "despicable." Rep. Bill Jenkins (R-Tenn.) described the entire scholars' panel as offering "a bunch of opinions. And what we say back in Tennessee is 'everybody's got one.'"

    And when Drinan, a former Democratic representative from Massachusetts suggested that GOP conservatives were bent on "vengeance" against a president they couldn't defeat at the polls, Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.) exploded: "If anybody thinks vengeance is involved, I'll meet them in the parking lot."

    Despite the preponderance of Democrats, the Republicans counterattacked effectively all day long, repeatedly demonstrating that neither the witnesses nor presidential special counsel Gregory Craig could easily rebut the allegations of perjury that could form the strongest impeachment articles.

    Indeed, the witnesses often tied themselves up in the same careful circumlocutions that for several months have exasperated many Americans – and enraged many of the moderates that impeachment advocates have also been trying to woo.

    Gallegly noted that Craig had described Clinton's deposition testimony as "evasive, incomplete, misleading and even maddening – how could his testimony be all those things without being a lie?"

    Craig replied: "There is one element that's absolutely central to the perjury elements of an offense. And that is that an absolute intent and knowledge [Clinton] did not intend to help; he did not intend to volunteer. He tried, I think, to answer accurately in a very narrow way. You may conclude, congressman, that he did not succeed."

    He did so conclude. So did Rep. Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.), who asked Craig the same question, got roughly the same answer, and, speaking directly to his fence-sitting colleagues, then said: "I don't see how anyone in this country could believe that that was a truthful answer."

    Throughout the day, Democrats sought to inject a new argument into the seemingly exhausted impeachment debate: The prospect of doomsday. Voting an impeachment article would trigger a Senate trial, tying up the "other body" and Chief Justice Rehnquist as the presiding officer for as long a year.

    Rep Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) described how "all of government" would be gridlocked and asked: "Is it appropriate to also measure the impact of a trial on the well-being of our nation?" She noted she was from Silicon Valley, whose venture capitalists were interested in "the implications for a trial for the economy."

    "The people involved in business and the stock markets and so forth want certainty," replied former attorney general Nicholas DeB. Katzenbach. "I can think of nothing much worse than pushing them into an uncertainty that would go on for some period of time."

    Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he was "befuddled" that some members were ready to impeach the president because Clinton had not displayed sufficient "contrition," or that he had not been "direct enough" in answering the 81 questions posed to him by the Judiciary Committee.

    Said Schumer: "It seems to me people are trying to avoid the direct, bald-naked confrontation of whether we should impeach or not when they're coming up with these kinds of answers."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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