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The Proud Compromisers

Sens. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.)(left) and John Warner (R-Va.) walk into the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber Friday. (AFP)

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  • By Joel Achenbach
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, January 9, 1999; Page A01

    John Warner took triumphant strides as he raced through the Capitol basement. The bipartisan caucus yesterday had been, for the institution of the Senate, not just a success but an affirmation, a sudden and dramatic example of what every senator had been proclaiming for days -- that the Senate is different, that it's unique, that it's not (and this would be merely hinted) like that gaggle of partisans and ideologues over on the House side of the Capitol.

    No, the Senate is a place of collegiality, statesmanship, mutual respect, they had been saying. Now they had proof, at least for a moment. They'd gotten together, in that old Senate chamber from a bygone era, and had found common ground. So it was that when Warner, a Republican, spied Paul Wellstone, a senator from the other side of the aisle, he greeted him so warmly it bordered on a mauling.

    "Quite a day, eh, colleague?" Warner said, his handshake evolving, as senatorial shakes are wont to do, into an arm grip, shoulder grip and neck grip.

    Warner pulled in tight and whispered: "The hand of Providence reached down and touched us."

    Wellstone, released from the taller man's grasp, said a moment later, "What's driving us is how awful the House looked."

    Making their clumsy way through a difficult process, the senators yesterday heard from Robert Byrd, the venerable Democrat from West Virginia, the historian among them, author of a history of the Senate, someone who once wrote that the institution is "the anchor of the Republic, the morning and evening star in the American constitutional constellation." That's what it says on the wall of his Capitol office, and that was the essence of his speech yesterday to the assembled members.

    "There have been several senates in the history of the world, but there have been two truly great senates, the Roman Senate and the United States Senate," Byrd said this week shortly after being sworn in as a juror in the trial of President Clinton.

    It was Byrd who was tapped by the Republican leader, Trent Lott, to give an orientation lecture in November to the incoming senators. This, he said, is what he told them:

    "There have been only 1,851 senators. Only 1,851 men and women have served in this body in the 210 years of the Senate. You are a chosen person. . . .

    "Remember, you don't serve under any president. You serve with a president. They can't fire you. They can't do anything to you. It's you who raises an army for him to command. Remember this, you're the boss. . . .

    "Don't think that he wears robes of purple. He doesn't wear a crown."

    The Senate, he told his colleagues yesterday, is on trial as it decides the fate of the president. Byrd would like to see the Senate acquit itself admirably.

    Draw the Curtains


    The senators want to mete out "impartial justice," as everyone keeps saying, and to do so without partisanship. They may find their goal becomes harder as the trial moves from its current condition of being largely theoretical. At some point, the noble aspirations could collide catastrophically with the nasty facts. The Senate took one step yesterday toward dealing with the dilemma by deciding that in certain moments -- Monica Lewinsky's testimony, conceivably -- they may vote to meet in closed session and release a transcript afterward.

    When things get ugly, close the door and draw the curtains.

    The Senate has always been clubby. There is little chance that two senators would have a dust-up like that of congressmen Bob Barr and Patrick Kennedy on the day of the House impeachment vote. Needing to win election statewide, few senators are ideologically as extreme as the representatives, who can emerge from a smaller and more homogeneous congressional district. In recent years when new members have come on too strong and thrown too many elbows, said Patrick Leahy of Vermont, "they were quickly taken aside by senior members of both sides and told, 'The Senate's different.' "

    Daniel Patrick Moynihan, getting into a Senators Only elevator -- they are used to moving in exclusive spaces -- became quite animated at the topic of what a senator is meant to be.

    "They're meant to be chosen by their state legislatures. It was meant to be the upper body." He uttered the last two words while hacking his hands in the air for emphasis. "You were elected for six years. You're not a popular body. It's the saucer in which the tea cools off."

    The cooling saucer is a favorite Senate metaphor. (Whether it's tea or coffee that cools off in the saucer depends on whom you ask.) Some members can recall their own parents drinking coffee and tea that way -- pouring it from the cup into the saucer, and then drinking from the saucer. If that implies that the Senate is a bit antiquated in style, that's fine with everyone. The Senate chamber still has a ceremonial brass spittoon.

    There are some senators who are more overtly senatorial than others. No one exactly understands what the characteristics of a senator are supposed to be -- "If you worry about being senatorial, you're probably not," said the overwhelmingly senatorial actor-turned-senator Fred Thompson -- but clearly it is not inappropriate to have a prodigious ego. The most senatorial senators do not put on regular-guy airs. During the swearing-in ceremony, there were no family members on the floor, much less children; not even any staff. Whereas on the other side of the Capitol, the scene was bedlam, with little girls dragging dolls down the aisles, babies bouncing all over the place, kids squirming and falling asleep and fidgeting. The Senate is not about to start letting children into its sanctified chamber.

    Dick Lugar said one distinction the senators enjoy is that they're old. He estimated the average age to be 50-plus. Gray hair abounds. For every Evan Bayh, the impossibly fresh-faced new senator from Indiana, or Olympia Snowe, with her perfect mane of black hair, there is someone like Jesse Helms, who uses a motorized wheelchair to scoot around, or Strom Thurmond, who is bordering on the immortal. Even Teddy Kennedy, once the perfect image of the vigorous playboy politician, is now a waddling old man.

    Contrary to popular conception, most senators don't actually look classically senatorial in the manner of John Warner ("It's called Central Casting," he said the other day). Some are tall, some are small, and most are fairly ordinary, with the exception that they tend to be very neat and spiffy, their hair parted just so, their buttons carefully buttoned and ties knotted tightly. To find Orrin Hatch with a stray hair would be like finding him wearing sandals and a tie-dyed shirt. Trent Lott's hair never changes, and one can imagine that it looks the same even when he pops out of the shower. There are a few who break the mold -- or, in the case of gargantuan Bob Smith of New Hampshire, crush it -- but as a rule they are a manicured elite, and from a distance might resemble a tidiness cult.

    What makes them all senatorial is the sense of privilege. Their awareness of their own power is enhanced by the peculiar rules of the institution. Even though each senator is but one among 100, any senator can effectively block a piece of legislation. There is the "rule of unlimited debate." A senator can commandeer the floor and in theory not give it up even if the Army storms the Capitol. To save time, the Senate generally treats any serious objection as the equivalent of a filibuster. The result is that most work is done by unanimous consent -- if there is any work accomplished at all.

    Bob Graham, who became accustomed to wielding executive authority as governor of Florida, said that a governor's job is "deductive," while a senator's job is "inductive." A governor orders something done on Feb. 1 and can expect it completed by summertime, whereas, said Graham, "here you make a decision on the first of February and hope within three or four years you might see some results."

    Former senator Birch Bayh, attending a reception in honor of his son, recalls something he heard from Gaylord Nelson when Nelson first hit the Senate: "I can't get anything done without getting 50 of you sumbitches to agree with me and then I have to worry about the other side of the aisle!"

    The senators are feeling their way forward this week. Most of their moves on the Senate floor so far have been scripted, but the scripts have been finished only at the last minute. They've also called in an expert helper, the chief justice of the United States, whose presence is a constitutional proviso.

    After the swearing in of senators as jurors -- Snowe, for one, had never been a juror before, not even in a purse-snatching case -- the chief justice spent a few minutes in a small, stunningly ornate room behind the main Senate chamber. It is called the President's Room.

    Ted Stevens, a Republican, spontaneously gave a reporter a quick tour on Thursday. Stevens is one of the old guard, a 30-year veteran, and is thoroughly senatorial, speaking with a tone of command and assurance that leads the listener to suspect that he has a background in the military. (In fact, he was a pilot in World War II, making dangerous flights over the Himalayas and across China without navigational beacons.)

    He marched into the President's Room and began pointing to the words on high: Liberty, Legislation, Executive. The room is like something from the palace at Versailles -- every square millimeter has a decoration of some kind. The polished colored tiles of the floor give way to delicately painted walls with portraits of the Founding Fathers, and then to a ceiling fresco. There is a grandfather clock. In the center of the room is a single oval desk, more of a table really, and a chair. On the desk was a small plastic bottle of Poland Spring water, cap off, and a glass of water, looking recently employed.

    "That's Bill Rehnquist," Stevens said, nodding at the desk. "This is probably where he will work."

    The reporter asked if the glass should be described as half full or half empty.

    "Depends. Are you a Republican or a Democrat?"

    Stevens said that when they were in the room together, he asked Rehnquist if he wanted to stick around the Senate for a couple of hours. He told Rehnquist that there might be some motions made regarding the trial.

    Rehnquist answered, "No, I have a daytime job."

    Dean of Capitol Hill


    No one is more unapologetically senatorial than Byrd. He can sometimes be found in a corner of the Capitol, a meager remnant of the vast space he commanded as chairman of the Appropriations Committee a few years back. He calls his small office "Elba" -- like Napoleon, he feels exiled from the power he enjoyed when the Democrats were in the majority.

    One afternoon this week, the senator patiently explained to a reporter the theory of the Senate, dating back to the Romans, and in the space of about 80 minutes mentioned Plutarch, Aeschylus, Solon, Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius and Xenophon.

    Closing his eyes, pursing his lips, he summoned from memory the precise dates and motivations of key events in human history. "Polybius was sent to Rome in the year 168 after the Battle of Pydna . . . ."

    And so on.

    Byrd, with his exacting memory, faltered only when it came time to reference an actual living person associated with the trial at hand. He was making the point that it is unnecessary to call witnesses, since their testimony is already found in the Starr report.

    "We have the testimony under oath of Monica -- is that her name? -- Monica Lewinsky."

    Byrd knows that he has a certain style that would strike many as pompous.

    "I read about how pompous I am. But I don't look at it that way. The Constitution made me what I am. . . . I am a United States senator and that is a very high title and I'm proud that the people of West Virginia have time after time after time sent me here."

    Byrd was among those picked to lead the chief justice into the Senate chamber during the solemn ceremony this week that began the trial. He is, he says, the dean of Capitol Hill. This is his 47th year in Congress. His hands shake and he said he does not write well anymore. So he may not ask any questions during the trial, since under the rules the questions are supposed to be written and handed to the chief justice.

    His age, he said, is 29,633 days and about 2 1/2 hours. He walks around with these numbers ticking in his head.

    "The day will come when the clock will stand still, for me," he said.

    No sooner will he have been buried, he said, than others will begin beseeching the governor of West Virginia to appoint them to fill Byrd's vacant Senate seat. He meant to make the point that he would not be remembered long, that his tenure would not be canonized, but the other implication was there as well. They will not pry him from his treasured Senate as long as he still breathes.

    Byrd and the other senatorial senators, the ones radiating seniority and institutional memory, will loom over the trial of the president. They will try to ensure that the Senate is different. The club must survive the process. The virtues of the place -- dignity, decorum, all those "d" words -- must be defended.

    Institutional inertia, stuffiness, stodginess may turn out to be virtues. Or as Byrd put it, "The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine."


    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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