In the final hours of Pete Williams, U.S. senator, there was little mention of Arab sheiks, videotapes and million-dollar bribes. As the 23-year veteran Democrat from New Jersey gave his farewell, the Senate seemed to heave a sigh of relief, launching into a chorus of praise for Williams' bravery, his long years of public service and his love of the institution.
The Senate chamber, with its marble statues and burnished desks, normally buzzing with chatter, had been eerily silent during the dirge-like proceedings as Williams, a balding, sad-faced man in a baggy suit, said his piece. But after it was all over, his colleagues crowded around him, reverting to their tradition of elaborate courtesy, patting him on the back, shaking his hand, offering words of comfort.
In the gallery, his wife Jeanette, a handsome blonde dressed in a bright purple suit, blew him a kiss and accepted a hug from Vice President Bush.
"None of us was elected to this body because he or she is an angel or a saint," said Democratic Leader Robert C. Byrd (W. Va.). "This is a sad moment for the Senate, for his friends and colleagues and, most of all, for Pete Williams."
As Byrd finished speaking, Williams, in his only public show of emotion, rubbed his eyes briefly, and the Senate clerk, in a dry voice, read his terse letter of resignation to his 99 colleagues.
"I feel no stain," Williams had told his colleagues during his proud, often bitter, final speech. Speaking in an even, unemotional tone, he never for an instant repented, maintaining to the end that he had been unfairly treated in his FBI Abscam "sting" prosecution, that he would be vindicated.
"I will be exonerated of any wrongdoing," he said. "I know I broke no laws . . . . Mistakes were made, but they were not venal at all."
He blamed his fate on "government gone amok," on the Justice Department and the FBI agents whom he called "ruthless con artists bearing hunting licenses," and even on his Senate colleagues.
"It is not only Pete Williams that stands accused or indicted," he said. "It is all of us, the entire Senate. In Abscam, it is the Senate that stands accused and intimidated by another branch of government . . . . The chairman of the Select Committee on Ethics Wyoming Republican Malcolm Wallop . . . shelters the FBI and its malcontents from criticism in his prosecution of me. In so doing I believe he makes the next Abscam easier and more legitimate."
Despite the personal attack, Wallop turned the other cheek, and, like other senators who had criticized him harshly during the week, sought to put the agonizing ordeal behind him. With Williams' resignation, he said, "There is neither victory nor defeat . . . . The public trust in us and in the institution's integrity has been attested to with honor and courage."
Other senators, many of whom were not close friends of this aloof man, but had worked with him long years on legislation, were obviously moved by what Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) called Williams' "lonely fight." Hawaii Democrat Daniel K. Inouye, who had defended Williams throughout the six-day ordeal, was the first to say, "My good friend, I bid you farewell and Godspeed."
Utah Republican Orrin K. Hatch said, "This has been a wrenching experience . . . . In taking his case to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, he represents every person in America . . . . I certainly hope they reverse the conviction ."
Many senators were obviously sympathetic to Williams' argument that he had been trapped by the FBI. What happened to Williams could happen to any other senator and to any ordinary citizen, several members suggested. "You don't send an undercover agent into a coffee after church to see if he can sell heroin," said Majority Whip Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).
Throughout the proceedings, Jeanette Williams sat erect in the front row of the gallery, maintaining her composure, except for an occasional sniffle. At her side was evangelist Rev. Carl McIntire, a man who, Williams said in his speech, came to him after his troubles began and "from the Bible found messages from God, directed to the evils here."
Pointedly, Williams quoted from the Lord's Prayer, "Lead us not into temptation," to bolster his argument that he was framed by undercover agents. He gestured toward the words inscribed in stone over the doors of the Senate chamber and read them in his deep baritone: "In God We Trust."
As senators and staffers lined up to shake Williams' hand after the session, a young page approached him and asked him to autograph a book. The boy, one of many youths who has run errands for the senator over the years, wiped a tear from his eye.
After the ceremony--one must call it that, for it was resonant with the pomp and circumstance of the Senate's finer moments--Williams, buoyed by the handshakes and kind words of his colleagues, seemed feistier and more determined than ever to battle his criminal conviction.
At a news conference in the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building, his wife at his side and the balcony full of clapping supporters, Williams told a phalanx of television cameras: "I am not a broken man."
His mail, he said, was overwhelmingly in support of his innocence. Again he complained that he was not permitted to "fully present my case" to the Senate, to call on witnesses that would have attested to the FBI's alleged misconduct. Now that he had resigned, he said, "among other things, I plan to enjoy life."
Would he apologize for what he did? he was asked.
He smiled and replied, "To be foolish is to be human and I was foolish. Do we apologize for being human? I don't know."