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Senators Face Historic Burden,
As Well as the Burden of History

Clinton on Trial

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  • By Steve Twomey
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, January 14, 1999; Page A1

    The stalwart Democrat, on the eve of the rarest of senatorial moments:

    Harkin of Iowa rises from a wing chair, makes for his desk. He's been asked: What have you been reading? He returns with an accordion folder and thumbs it. Let's see: Senate rules, selected studies, editorials. But not the Andrew Johnson trial record of 1868, nor William Rehnquist's book on impeachment. Tom Harkin's not delving quite that deep. He's not awed by this moment, nor much conflicted. The case, he says, is "counterfeit." It's a "sham." House zealots produced "a pile of dung." He has called it that on national TV, "and I have not backed off that statement, and I won't."

    The bedrock Republican, similarly awaiting the start:

    Thomas of Wyoming, his staff says, has taken to pacing his office. On Fridays, he likes to wing home to Casper and sanity. But this Friday, he'll be grounded, trapped by a task "I'd rather not have to deal with." You know how an infantry platoon that's never experienced combat wonders how it will perform? Thomas wonders how the Senate will hold up under constitutional stress. Like their brethren in the House? Please, no. No games. This is too big. "This is about protecting the nation from the things that could be hurtful," Craig Thomas says.

    Harkin and Thomas are merely 2 percent of the jury that will convene in the Senate today to listen in muzzled silence as the House commences its two-article prosecution of the impeached William Jefferson Clinton. But together with three other senators – Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, and Democrat Evan Bayh of Indiana – they represent as good a cross-section as any of the body that will make the call on whether the Clinton presidency ends here and now, or completes its scheduled run.

    It will be one of Bayh's first formal decisions as a senator. He's been one for only eight days. But not a one of these 100 triers of fact has traveled this road before, regardless of time served. More than six generations of Americans have come and gone since the trial of 1868, and in that time the Senate has declared war more than once, elevated nominees to the Supreme Court, signed off on missile and trade treaties, created tax loopholes, brokered budgets, done just about everything the Senate has the constitutional power to do, except this, except decide whether a president keeps his day job.

    Bayh's descriptions of the atmosphere say much.

    Solemn, he calls it.

    Sober.

    Chilling.

    "We bear the burdens of history," he says, sitting in the modest suite of a senatorial newcomer, in the basement of the Dirksen Building. "What I care about is 50 years, 100 years from now. What will history say? What will my children say? Was it handled fairly and appropriately? Was the republic strengthened or weakened? Were the institutions that must sustain us strengthened or weakened? That's what matters. It's not the fate of a single person, in the long scheme of history."

    By day, Bayh's been thinking about the president's fate. By night, he and his twin 3-year-old sons have been watching, oh, "Dumbo." The unprecedented and surreal. The utterly normal.

    "I think it's going to be fascinating and very solemn," Collins says in her office, "and unlike any other experience I've had in my life."

    She's been preparing. They all have.

    Collins, elected in 1996, has learned all about one William Pitt Fessenden, a Maine senator back in '68, a Republican as she is. Fessenden bucked his party and helped save Andrew Johnson.

    Thomas says he's talked to a federal judge in Wyoming, a personal friend, about when witnesses are appropriate in an impeachment trial.

    Shelby's office took delivery just yesterday of a heap of impeachment documents four feet high. His staff writes memos and Shelby, a Democrat in an earlier life and a prosecutor, too, ponders the case's big questions, none bigger than this: What kind of offenses are worthy of the ultimate punishment of removal from office? Is perjury?

    But the five haven't been preparing for long. They share a bipartisan verity: None of the quintet's members foresaw, back when the name Monica Lewinsky first rolled across America a year ago, that the mess would ooze through the months and onto the floor of the Senate.

    Collins says the allegations reflected such reckless behavior she doubted they could be true.

    Thomas says they were "a strange thing," but hardly the stuff of pivotal history.

    Shelby says he didn't give it much time, or attention.

    Bayh, of course, saw no role for himself; he hadn't even announced his candidacy.

    Harkin saw the presidential finger wag – I didn't do it, not with that woman – and believed the denial, and never believed the Republicans loathed Clinton so much they would push it this far.

    But now, here it is. All theirs.

    At least it ends with them, in the Senate. And how will it end? The question almost visibly pushes these senators into juror mode – discomfort, reserve, uncharacteristic silence. Bayh, for example, says he is "alone with my best judgment."

    The former governor of Indiana and a rising star in his party, Bayh has known Clinton for years. He respects the man's political ability and stamina, and has seen the Clinton magic up close, that ability to electrify and connect with average folk. He remembers campaigning with him in Indiana and seeing a "dog-tired" leader revive at the mere sight of a crowd. Bayh seems almost in awe of Clinton's toughness now.

    "I mean, a lot of people would have been in the fetal position a long time ago," Bayh says. "But not the president."

    Someone reminds him that he is now Clinton's judge and jury.

    "That's true," Bayh says. "I will do impartial justice, which means that you judge without regard to friendship or favor. And I will look at the evidence, and I will look at the law, and I will judge accordingly. ... I really do intend to be very reserved about it, because I think it would be very inappropriate for jurors to be basically having stream-of-consciousness deliberations in the media. I think that could be very unseemly."

    And he will cast his vote from the desk used by his father, Birch, during his 18 years in the Senate.

    Shelby, too, knows Clinton better than many. One evening, see, the president knocked on the door of his Georgetown house. It was the day of the wake for Vincent Foster, the Clinton aide who had killed himself. The president wanted to talk and did, for more than an hour. They've had several long chats since, most recently two months ago.

    "He's a very smart, very easygoing man. I've got respect for him, and for the office," Shelby says, although back home in Alabama, there are constituents who don't feel quite as warmly about the president. "Some want to, zoom, hang him. Trial or no trial." Others are not so harsh.

    And Shelby's view? "I do believe the threshold should be very high before you impeach a president, be it a Republican or Democrat, Whig or Independent. The burden of proof is on the House managers, and it ought to be very high."

    Back home in Wyoming, Thomas says, many aren't too keen on the leader of the free world, either. Never were. Didn't like the idea of somebody seeking to be commander of America's fighting men and women after seemingly dodging the draft. But Thomas, a senator since 1994, hasn't been publicly pushed into a "remove him" mind-set.

    "Two things I think you have to have in your own mind, in your own heart," Thomas says in his office in the Hart Building. "One is, are the allegations true? The second is, do they merit removal from office? And each is a hard thing, because this is not about punishment."

    This is about guarding the nation.

    "And if you think these allegations are true – perjury and obstruction of justice – and you think that is something that would have the potential for hurting the country over time, then you ought to do something about it."

    Oddly, Democrat Harkin puts the choices the same way as Republican Thomas: Did the president commit perjury and obstruct justice and, if so, should he be shown the door? But of the five, Harkin, a third-term senator, is the most openly dubious of how this has been handled, the most ready to tell you right where he stands.

    "Every senator has already passed judgment on the quality of the House case," he says. "In their own minds and in their own hearts, each one already has, and no one can tell me otherwise. Because we're not jurors. We're not coming to a case blindfolded, and unknowing and unseeing. We know what's there, we've followed the case, we've read it. And you can't say, 'Well, I've read all this but doesn't mean anything to me.' Of course it means something to you. It means something to anyone who reads it."

    He sees no case, not as of this moment, against a man he dueled for the presidency back in 1992. He sees this as the Republicans gone wild. "There'd be more of a gravity to it if this had not been such a partisan undertaking and if, in fact, this wasn't just based on an illicit sexual affair, which it is," Harkin says.

    He's not taking sides, he says. He can still be impartial. "I'm not saying they can't convince me. I'm saying they've got a heavy burden." It's possible the trial will start and he'll learn something. "I am sure there are about this that I have not thought about. ... They may come up with something. They may make an argument that takes on a whole new dimension."

    The arguments begin today, the senators sitting in silence.

    Staff writers Lorraine Adams, William Claiborne, Gabriel Escobar and Michael Powell contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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