Looking for Big Meaning in Big Votes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 13, 1999; Page A31
Perhaps it is the only vote, in this Congress and in many others, that history will remember. Evan Bayh, the senator from Indiana, said that in the well of the chamber, to his colleagues and for posterity. The freshman Democrat said it again outside the Capitol, repeated it again like a mantra on the walk across Constitution Avenue, uttered it once more in the solitude of his basement office.
The trial of President Clinton may have generated little light, but there was no doubt yesterday that the institution of the Senate emerged altered from the ordeal. Even if the tallies starkly illuminated the divisions, the singular nature of the twin votes bonded together for history the 100 men and women, freshmen and veterans, liberals and conservatives. "I was looking at all my colleagues," Bayh said of yesterday's proceedings, "and it occurred to me, this may never happen again."
The trial was long, conflicted, often repetitive, trying in a grinding way, "incredibly intense," in the words of Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.). They were asked to decide whether the president's actions did "manifest injury to the people of the United States," as the wording used in both articles of impeachment described it. Some senators deliberated in private, others loudly and in public. Some prayed in groups, others labored in solitude, all confronting a task borne only twice in history.
In the aftermath of the monumental votes, with constraints on discussing the specifics of their private deliberations lifted, senators addressed both the broader issues raised by the trial and in some cases the personal toll it inflicted. Visibly weary in some cases, invigorated by the media's focus in others, the senators sought to put into words what this has meant, individually and collectively.
"You know, it wasn't a happy thing. But I learned a few things," said Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.), who never yielded in his conviction that the president should be removed from office and voted to convict on both counts. "I feel like I'm a more studious protector of the Constitution than perhaps I was. I'm also impressed that this system of ours can go through some really tough things and survive."
The result was another verdict, this one on an institution mired in the politics of the moment and still able to treat one another with dignity and decorum. "We really reverted back to the Senate of the old days, when senators used to come to this town and be together for long periods of time, that's what's happened in the last five or six weeks," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat. "Democrats and Republicans, the same chamber, talking, back and forth, seeing one another at meetings. I really think the Senate as an institution is stronger today than it was as this began."
It was the paradox of the day: The efforts that made the legislative body stronger also sapped the energy of its members. Behind his desk, Bayh sipped a diet Dr. Pepper and often lost his train of thought, a sign of what he called the mental exhaustion brought on by the trial. He could not recall the last time he had eaten a good breakfast, much less had an appetite. His days were long and his nights longer. Heart searching, he called it. Only his wife Susan was privy to his thoughts, and he spoke of how "lonely" it was to stand in a crowded room, in a place where his father Birch Bayh had long served, and deliver a not guilty verdict of such singular import.
The beating delivered on the reputation of the president, in the privacy of the Senate chamber, seemed to profoundly disturb Bayh, even if he said it was entirely deserving. "I have never experienced anything like this in my life," said Bayh, one of six senators followed closely by The Washington Post during the trial. "One after the other, day after day, hour after hour, people would rise and denounce the president. I don't think there was a speaker who didn't do that.
"The cumulative effect of this . . . " he said, his voice trailing. "There was," he finally concluded, "no respect."
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who fought in vain to open the deliberations to the public, reached for a parallel and found one in his experiences as a noncombat Navy pilot during the Vietnam War. "This has been one of those things in your life you don't forget. ... you don't forget the emotions. You don't forget how you felt. It's like the first time I landed on a carrier," Harkin said. "It required so much mental and physical commitment that you're just kind of weary."
While the cumulative effect of all that has happened since Jan. 7 may take some time to assess, there were those who said the institution did better than just well. Locked in the chamber, together, the Senate's famous comity prevailed, a far different outcome than that in the House during the impeachment.
"One of the real pleasant surprises is how much closer members of the Senate feel toward each other. And that's Democrats and Republicans toward each other," said Levin. "It really was with great respect and admiration that people were listening to each other's speeches."
Ugly it wasn't. "Everyone was groping for the truth," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer. (D-N.Y.) "There was very little nastiness." Maryland Democrat Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said the Senate had also been on trial and had "conducted itself with honor."
"I was proud of the Senate," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), one of only six Republicans to side with the Democrats and a potential target for the discontent of the GOP. That did not happen. "The senators really conducted themselves, not only with a great deal of dignity, but compassion for one another.
"I had several Republicans who disagreed vehemently with my vote come up and tell me that I gave a good speech," said Collins. "I had Democrats also come over and tell me that they knew it had been an agonizing decision. The atmosphere was not like any other that I'd seen, when you consider that the vote was largely along party lines."
Wyoming's Thomas, who voted guilty on both counts, said the closed-door debates had offered him new insights into other members, even political adversaries. Thomas likened the experience to the Senate prayer breakfasts he regularly attends, where spirituality transcends political differences and people tend to look at motives through a more benevolent prism.
"In closed session, there were a lot of us sharing very candidly how we had come to our decisions, and that was very revealing to me," Thomas said. "I'm not suggesting that we are all going to embrace each other on all the issues," he said. "But that doesn't mean you can't talk to one another and accept differences in a kindly and friendly way."
The metaphors of the day were, literally, moving. It was almost as if standing in place presented its own perils. Senators spoke of moving forward by putting the impeachment behind them, of walking on common ground. There was also an evangelical tone, many trying to repair the breach. "I hope this will be a catharsis," said Bayh. "We've got to break this cycle of recriminations."
Bayh had not made up his mind before the Senate convened, on that he was unequivocal. The evidence fell short of reasonable doubt, the standard he felt applied to removing the president, and he voted to acquit. Harkin said the trial, far from being a show, may have swayed some people that Clinton was not guilty. Particularly important, in his view, was Monica S. Lewinsky's testimony, when she made it plain that she could have had her own reasons for filing a false affidavit in the Paula Jones suit. "You could just see the looks on senators' faces when that came through," Harkin said.
Sen. Richard C. Shelby, (R-Ala.) who was often on the air advertising his doubts about the case against the president, spent hours reading and poring over the definition of the crimes, voting in the end to acquit on the perjury and convict on obstruction. No one piece of evidence convinced him. "It was nothing in particular," he said before leaving town to attend to a family matter. "It was all the pieces added together."
Collins, who broke with her party, sought out friend and Harvard law professor Dick Fallon, deliberating Sunday night at the MCI Center, where the Capitals were playing. Fallon, Collins and Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) had breakfast Monday in the Senate dining room, the trial on the menu. Fallon would later fax suggestions, from Harvard.
Her speech went through at least 30 drafts. The final revelation came Wednesday, while reading Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist's book on impeachment. "That further impressed upon me the thought that it was better to err on the side of not removing the president.
"In many ways, I did not want to do it. That needs to be said," Collins said. "I had to put aside my utter contempt for what he did. And I had to divorce that from my responsibilities as a senator to follow what I thought the Constitution required."
In Bayh's office, there was little doubt that his votes had angered many in his conservative state, where he served two terms as governor. The calls came in before the vote and surged afterward. "They are absolutely distraught," said Rob Ehrick, a staff assistant.
"I think they will understand that I treated this very seriously," Bayh said, assessing the fallout. "I looked at the Constitution. I looked at the laws, the facts, and I did what I thought was right. If it lost me votes, that's part of the process, too. My conscience is clear."
Weeks ago, he received two commemorative pens, one for his swearing in as a U.S. senator, another as juror sitting in judgment over the president. They will go to his twin sons, now 3. "I frankly wish I could have two happy pens to give them. There's one happy and one rather sad," he said.
Now the trial is over, and Bayh repeats the question he raised in his speech, behind closed doors, his first ever as a senator, the only one history may remember. "How have we come to this?
"I can tell you the end from memory," he said of the speech, which he delivered without notes late Thursday.
"This chapter is soon to close, and there is nothing more that we can do," Bayh remembered without breaking stride. "But I hope the sons and daughters of Lincoln, the heirs of Jefferson and Jackson, can stop the war that we have waged upon one another and instead resume the struggle against the common enemies of man: ignorance, poverty and disease."
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