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Behind Closed Doors, Senate Struggled

Clinton Acquitted

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  • By Peter Baker and Helen Dewar
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Sunday, February 14, 1999; Page A25

    They quoted Socrates, Sir Walter Scott and even the Boy Scout Oath. They read letters from constituents and treatises by Alexander Hamilton. One felt trapped in a Charles Dickens novel. Another compared the task of making an impartial decision in this superheated political environment to performing brain surgery in a rowdy football stadium.

    Thus went the deliberations the American people did not see. In 20 hours over the course of four days last week, the Senate conducted a momentous debate entirely behind closed doors, weighing their verdict on whether President Clinton should be the first chief executive ever removed from office.

    What the public missed, according to a partial record of the historic proceedings released yesterday, was a sometimes thoughtful, sometimes tendentious debate featuring the politician-jurors clearly struggling with a vote that troubled veteran and rookie alike.

    "Today is my 38th day as a senator," newly elected Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.) lamented at one point. "Those 38 days feel like they have lasted my entire life."

    And he could only imagine how Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) felt. "This is without question the most difficult, wrenching and soul-searching vote that I have ever -- ever -- cast in my 46 years in Congress," Byrd said in wrapping up the deliberations Friday morning.

    The sum and substance of those deliberations were made known in the days preceding the votes that followed Friday afternoon, when the Senate acquitted Clinton of perjury and obstruction of justice charges stemming from his efforts to conceal an extramarital affair with Monica S. Lewinsky. Many of the senators had issued written statements or found television cameras to explain the positions they were taking behind closed doors.

    But the hundreds of pages of tiny text from about 75 senators who asked to publish their remarks in the Congressional Record yesterday offered perhaps a more revealing peek into the sealed chamber. While the deliberations were more a succession of soliloquies than a genuine conversation, they were laced with personal ruminations, conflicted emotions and vented indignation.

    Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) recalled sketching out his thoughts about the case while aboard the long Air Force One flight with Clinton returning from the funeral of Jordan's King Hussein. Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) mused on the importance of oaths, citing the Hippocratic Oath he had taken as a physician. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) reminisced about first meeting a "popular student" named Bill Clinton many years ago at Georgetown University.

    One of the most clearly tormented was Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), like Fitzgerald one of the Senate's newcomers. As he approached the well, he told Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, sitting in the presiding chair, that he recalled the jurist leading a sing-along at a conference. "I thought it might be a good idea for this group," Edwards said.

    "A healing device," Rehnquist replied to laughter.

    Edwards then put aside the prepared remarks he had brought that day because, he said, he wanted to "speak to you from the heart."

    "I have been through a struggle," he said. "It is a real struggle. And I suspect that there are an awful lot of you who have been through the same struggle."

    A former trial attorney, Edwards then walked through the case allegation by allegation, weighing the prosecution's evidence on an imaginary scale against arguments by the defense lawyers. It looked "awful suspicious" that subpoenaed gifts from Clinton to Lewinsky wound up under the bed of Oval Office secretary Betty Currie. As for the president's assertion that he was trying to refresh his recollection when he led Currie through a series of false statements, Edwards said, "I doubt if anybody buys that."

    Yet as he saw it, there was room for doubt that Clinton's actions were criminal. The House Republican "managers" had no direct proof that the president ordered the gifts hidden, and they could only guess at his intentions when he was speaking with Currie.

    "I think there is an enormous difference between what has been proven and what we suspect," Edwards said, "because I have to tell you all, I suspect a lot that has not been proven."

    Another juror sifting through his own thoughts from the well of the Senate was Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), who engaged in a more meandering and less legal analysis of the case.

    Campbell opened with a confession. When senators signed their oaths at the beginning of the trial, the special pens they were given contained a typo: "Untied States Senate." Instead of returning it as asked, though, he kept his. "I heard they are going to be valuable collectors' items and I am not turning mine in," he said. "I want to see what it's worth. And there you have it. An imperfect senator being asked to judge an imperfect president."

    Campbell, who is part Native American, went on to talk about his own upbringing. "A mixed-blood kid from the wrong side of the tracks, the offspring of an alcoholic father and a tubercular mother, in and out of orphanages, a law breaker and high school dropout who lied, cheated, stole and did many other shameful things make me a poor judge indeed of someone else who used poor judgment," he said.

    Yet he recalled the first question his son, then 9, asked 17 years ago when Campbell decided to run for public office. "He asked, 'Dad, are you going to lie and stuff?' I told him, 'No, I don't have to learn how to lie.' I still remembered how to lie from my delinquent days. I'm still trying to forget it."

    After that windup, he finally came to the point: "I took a solemn oath -- perhaps it is the only thing in common I share with John F. Kennedy, Harry Truman and Daniel Webster as well as the founders of this nation -- and that is why honoring it is all the more important to me. Simply speaking, the president did, too. And, so even though I like him personally, I find I can only vote one way. And that is guilty on both articles."

    Searching for precedent where there is none precisely, several of the senators recalled their shared turmoil when then-Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) was forced to resign rather than be expelled following allegations of sexual harassment and evidence tampering.

    "We Republicans were aware during the Packwood debate that we would likely lose that Senate seat if Senator Packwood was removed from office," said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). "So we had a choice: retain the Senate seat or retain our honor? We chose honor and never looked back."

    That comparison clearly rankles Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who rose to national prominence in part by leading a campaign for Packwood's ouster in 1995. During her own remarks last week, Boxer sharply disputed any parallels.

    "In this case, we have a consensual affair, wanted by both parties," she said of the Clinton matter. While the Lewinsky affair was "wrong in every way," she added, "the more than 20 women who complained about Senator Packwood alleged forced sexual misconduct against them. One victim was 17 years old. They wanted to tell their stories."

    Boxer had other personal roots in the Clinton case to address, namely her relationship by marriage with the president that has been cited by some as a conflict. Quite the opposite, she said. "I just want to say that, yes, my daughter is married to the first lady's brother, a brother who loves and admires his sister and doesn't want to see her hurt. So I am far from being a defender of the president's behavior."

    Not all senators struck such human themes. A number of them drafted lengthy legal analyses that they entered into the record. Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) wrote what might pass for an appeals court opinion. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) produced a scholarly history of the Constitution's drafting.

    There was an apparent contest among senators over who could quote the most people, with extra points for founding fathers; Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) was near the top of the list with citations from Hamilton, James Madison, George Mason, Gerald R. Ford, Robert J. Dole, Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.), and his own legal mentor, Sid Balick. Many Democrats were particularly happy to quote one of the managers, Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who said "reasonable people" could disagree on whether to remove the president.

    Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) managed to quote George Washington and Supreme Court opinions as well as the Boy Scout Oath and the Girl Scout Promise. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) recalled a phone call from a mother who had considered the Clinton case nothing more than a partisan witch hunt -- until her teenage son tried to excuse his own lying by saying he understood what he said to be true at the time.

    "We have to ask the question how we got here with a tragedy like this," Grassley said. "There are many losers. There are no winners. There are surely no heroes. There are lots of lessons to be learned and I think all of our prayers ought to go out to those who were ensnared in the web of controversy."

    Including, many in the chamber were no doubt thinking, themselves.


    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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