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For This President, It's Impeachment Lite

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  • By Lloyd Grove
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, December 21, 1998; Page C01

    Honey, we shrunk the impeachment!

    Once upon a time, the mere thought of making the president of the United States endure a Senate trial for high crimes and misdemeanors was a colossal affair. Impeaching the maximum leader, let alone removing him, was considered so staggering to the body politic that it has been seriously contemplated only twice before and carried out just once in the nation's 222-year history.

    But this is President Clinton's Washington. Even the political equivalent of the death penalty must be downsized and crammed into its special little box -- reduced from its former spine-tingling grandeur to a level of cheeseball banality. After all, the current mess arises from Clinton's lying about a furtive fling with a twenty-something White House intern. Taking their cue from the president's vaunted psychological survival mechanisms, the nation's elected representatives are quickly learning to "compartmentalize."

    We now hold these truths to be self-evident: The planet's last remaining superpower can impeach its commander in chief while launching massive airstrikes half a world away. The president's job approval rating can climb (to 67 percent in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll) at the very moment that the Congress is determining whether to fire him. Even the Supreme Court apparently can function normally while the chief justice presides over a trial in the Senate. "I think our daily routine won't be affected by it," Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor recently assured a group of high school students.

    And Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), floating the idea of a "two-track" impeachment, has suggested that the world's greatest deliberative body can perform its legislative work in the mornings and put the president on trial after lunch.

    "We've so trivialized this process that on one track we could be voting to enact National Jalapeno Day while on the other track we could be voting on impeachment," said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, attempting to puncture Lott's trial balloon. "There is a strange disconnect. On the one hand, we see people solemnly talking about how we have to make sure we don't bomb Iraq during Ramadan, and on the other hand we can willy-nilly impeach the president of the United States, and if we hurry, make our flights home in time for Christmas shopping."

    "There's a sense in which this is being done almost casually and frivolously," said former Richard Nixon aide Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "If you look at the two issues of the 19th century that brought about the censure of Andrew Jackson and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, they were the most serious public policy issues of the 19th century -- the question of Reconstruction after the Civil War in Johnson's case, and the question of a central bank and our national economic system in Jackson's. Nixon's case was about very serious political corruption. By those standards, the impeachment of Bill Clinton is just bizarre."

    "Now impeachment becomes a political baseball bat instead of a guillotine above the president's head," said retiring Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.). "It's a dumbing-down of the process. Ultimately, it lessens the stature of our institutions and weakens the fundamental fabric that holds us together as a people."

    Not necessarily so, of course. The Republican Party, whose members voted out two articles of impeachment in the House, clearly believes otherwise. And a few knowledgeable observers dismissed the teeth-gnashing as unwarranted.

    Former GOP representative Bill Frenzel of Minnesota, a member of the House when Nixon's transgressions were being debated, dismissed the notion that Clinton's impeachment represents "a politics where life imitates farce" -- House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt's phrase -- or that it's the product of "small men" and "petty careers . . . devoid of a sense of proportion and overburdened with an excess of hubris" -- the claim of Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.).

    "I don't believe that we have to drape the impeachment process in striped pants and a sash to make it more grand and wonderful than it is," Frenzel said. "It's a very important vote of conscience, a very difficult vote, and there will always be politicians giving speeches that seem to trivialize every issue they deal with, and yet occasionally there will be some very profound statements as well. This is just another of Congress's jobs. It's an unpleasant kind of job, but there's no reason to expect it to be like a Cecil B. De Mille movie."

    Former Republican senator Lowell Weicker, a key figure in the Senate Watergate hearings a quarter-century ago, said he doesn't shrink from the idea of bringing Clinton before the bar.

    "Everybody seems to forget, he's getting impeached for lying under oath, not for having sex," said Weicker, who after losing his Senate seat became governor of Connecticut. "We have to keep focused on this problem: If he is lying and doing it within the judicial system, then the chief executive is undermining the third branch of government."

    Yet even Weicker concedes that Clinton's troubles lack for grandeur. "It's a little bit much to bring a grand jury into the escapades of the president," he said. "In terms of what was done to undermine the judicial branch, it was a lot easier to go through the enumerated offenses of Mr. Nixon."

    Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), a fierce foe of impeachment, was an undergraduate at Rutgers University when Nixon resigned the presidency instead of subjecting himself to a trial. "I thought that was serious," he recalled. "We all recognized the uniqueness of that moment in history. With the final result, most Americans felt some pride in the strength of the Constitution and the seriousness of our institutions. It's difficult to feel any of that now."

    Sociologist Michael Schudson, who has published various volumes on Americans' memory of the Watergate scandal and the transcendent meaning of citizenship, said the subject of Clinton's troubles seems too small to sustain a book. "Not impeachable -- not bookable," said Schudson, a professor of communications at the University of California at San Diego.

    "Certainly there's no majesty," Schudson said. "If you see your distinguished colleague in the men's room doing his business, it doesn't enhance the majesty of his work or his career. That's what's happened here. We're down in the dirt."

    To historian William Leuchtenberg, Clinton's troubles seem positively mundane -- in a weirdly unsettling way.

    "It's all become so routinized," said Leuchtenberg, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "There's a sense of machinery that will function by itself. I remember reading a science fiction story in which all kinds of mechanisms go on in the house -- the toaster, the vacuum cleaner -- and only gradually does the reader realize that everybody on Earth is dead."

    As the debate over Clinton's offenses rages on, "I can barely bring myself to watch it," Leuchtenberg added. "There is so much blather. It's all being conducted on a very low level on both sides. It's so predictable, with Republicans who have admitted to having extramarital affairs taking a very high moral tone, and Democrats using words like 'crucifixion.' It rots the brain."

    Leuchtenberg briefly played a role in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit that set all these events in motion. He provided historical analysis for U.S. Solicitor General Walter Dellinger's unsuccessful January 1997 Supreme Court argument that the trial should be delayed.

    It is little remembered today that when Jones initially filed her complaint against Clinton in federal court in 1994, she was seeking $75,000 in actual damages and $100,000 in punitive damages.

    Leahy reacted with shock after a reporter told him the dollar figures -- a tiny fraction of all the millions that will have been spent on the president's legal fees, his final settlement with Jones, independent counsel Kenneth Starr's mammoth investigation and the impeachment trial to come.

    "I think I'm going to throw up," Leahy said. "Jesus -- for that, we're going to go through months of governmental gridlock."

    For the moment, at least, things are a tad out of whack. The president is girding himself for an impeachment trial in which Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp are apt to be witnesses; a prospective House speaker has been ousted by self-declared investigative journalist Larry Flynt. And in Washington and beyond, both scale and proportion have been temporarily warped, as though the country were staring at its reflection in a fun-house mirror.

    Perhaps Clinton himself, flanked by his defenders Saturday on the White House South Lawn, put it best: "The question is: What are we going to do now?"

    Schudson, who voted for Clinton twice, said the answer may not matter. "As a maker of policy and as a proposer of legislation, the Clinton presidency is pretty much finished, whether or not he remains in office."

    Weicker said the Senate should have its trial, and thus restore some stature to the diminished body politic.

    "No matter how many individuals have been damaged along the way," he said, "let's at least keep the Constitution and its process intact."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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