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Bumpers Asks for End to 'Nightmare'

Bumpers Former senator Dale Bumpers closes defense arguments in the Senate impeachment trial as Rep. Henry Hyde, the chief prosecutor, listens. (C-SPAN)

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  • By Peter Baker
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, January 22, 1999; Page A1

    After a lawyerly three-day dissection of the case against President Clinton, the White House defense team pivoted sharply at the conclusion of opening arguments yesterday to beseech the Senate to forgive the president for his "terrible moral lapse" and put an "end to this nightmare."

    Retired Democratic senator Dale Bumpers, recruited just three weeks after leaving office to return to the Senate chamber and rescue his old friend from Arkansas, seized the last word in Clinton's defense to say that the president already has been punished because his family has been "decimated" by his affair with a former White House intern.

    "If you vote to convict, in my opinion, you're going to be creating more havoc than he could ever possibly create," Bumpers said, directly citing poll numbers in arguing for acquittal. "After all, he's only got two years left. So don't, for God's sake, heighten people's alienation that is at an all-time high toward their government. The people have a right and they are calling on you to rise above politics, rise above partisanship."

    The familiar, folksy style of Bumpers, who still referred to the senators as "colleagues" and cited several by name, contrasted sharply with the final factual argument presented earlier in the afternoon by Clinton attorney David E. Kendall, who warned that his methodical examination of the facts would be "tedious" and "painstaking."

    Picking apart five specific allegations that Clinton obstructed justice to cover up his infidelity with Monica S. Lewinsky, Kendall over and over quoted her testimony that no one ever asked her to lie or offered her a job in exchange for a false affidavit. "Quid pro quo? No," he declared in a refrain after reviewing each element of the charge.

    The finale of the opening arguments yesterday ended the scripted phase of the impeachment trial, the first of a president in 131 years. Starting today, the proceedings move into a far more spontaneous and unpredictable stage as senators get their first chance to ask questions they will submit in writing to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who will read them.

    Republicans and Democrats will alternate questions one after the other for up to 16 hours through Saturday in a process that could illuminate how senators view the case and possibly influence the decision on whether to call witnesses as the House prosecutors have requested. Then on Monday, the Senate finally will be confronted with the critical questions it has tried to put off throughout the process, as it begins considering a motion to dismiss the case likely to be filed by the president's defenders and a motion to call witnesses certain to be advanced by the prosecution.

    The White House defense capped by Bumpers appeared to shore up Senate Democrats, some of whom were dispirited after what they deemed a surprisingly effective case presented by the House Republican "managers" last week. Complaining that the schedule allows them no rebuttal the way normal prosecutors get, the managers said yesterday that they hope to use the upcoming question-and-answer period to counter the Clinton case.

    "I just think a lot of people wish we would just go away," said Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), the head of the 13-member prosecution team. "But we can't because the law won't let us and our sense of duty won't let us. We're going to see this thing through until they shut the door on us."

    The president's legal team wrapped up his defense a year to the day after the scandal first erupted with news reports that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr was investigating whether Clinton tried to improperly influence Lewinsky's testimony in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit. In the 12 months since then, Starr concluded that the president did and the House concurred by approving two articles of impeachment accusing Clinton of perjury and obstruction of justice.

    Bumpers made a more blatantly political case for Clinton's acquittal than the four presidential lawyers who preceded him, skipping lightly over the evidence while focusing instead on constitutional history and personal trauma. With the style and self-deprecating humor of a Southern preacher, the 73-year-old former senator and governor spoke from handwritten notes he was still scribbling on yellow legal paper not long before he rose, and he wandered so far afield from the lectern that his lapel microphone kept falling off.

    He cut the thick tension that has dominated the trial with homey jokes from the outset, drawing the only real laughter of the proceedings. "Incidentally," he said in one aside, "you're being addressed by the entire South Franklin County, Arkansas, Bar Association."

    Unlike anyone else in the six days of floor arguments, Bumpers focused on what he called the missing "human element" and chided the House managers for being "unnecessarily harsh" in their denunciations of Clinton.

    "The president and Hillary and Chelsea are human beings," he said. ". . . The relationship between husband and wife, father and child has been incredibly strained, if not destroyed. There's been nothing but sleepless nights, mental agony for this family for almost five years. Day after day, from accusations of having assassinated, or had Vince Foster assassinated, on down. It has been bizarre."

    Clinton misled his friends, his aides and the nation, Bumpers said, to protect "his wife whom he adored and a child that he worshiped with every fiber in his body and for whom he would happily have died to spare her this or to ameliorate her shame and her grief."

    Bumpers called Clinton's conduct "indefensible, outrageous, unforgivable, shameless," but not impeachable. "We are none of us perfect," he said. "Sure, you say, he should have thought of all that beforehand. And indeed he should. Just as Adam and Eve should have." Then, pointing at his former colleagues, he said, "Just as you and you and you and you, and millions of other people who have been caught in similar circumstances, should have thought of it before."

    Bumpers, who decided not to seek reelection last year after 24 years in the Senate, joined the president's defense team Tuesday as an unpaid special government employee and, to represent Clinton, had to obtain a waiver from revolving-door laws prohibiting ex-lawmakers from lobbying their colleagues for a year after leaving office.

    In a strategy none of the trial lawyers used so bluntly, Bumpers did not shy away from directly referring to public opinion surveys showing that voters oppose conviction: "The people are saying, 'Please don't protect us from this man, 76 percent of us think he's doing a fine job, 65 to 70 percent of us don't want him removed from office.'"

    The former senator also jabbed back at Hyde's closing remarks last week when he urged the Senate to convict Clinton to redeem the sacrifices of war heroes who died to save "the rule of law." In a meandering recollection of his own enlistment in World War II and tearful sendoff from his family, Bumpers said he never saw combat, but then identified several members of the Senate sitting before him who did and praised their courage.

    Bumpers's performance earned immediate praise from his former colleagues, although several Republicans said they did not believe it affected their caucus.

    "It was very entertaining, amusing, powerful and political," said Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.). "It was classic Dale Bumpers."

    "Dale's Dale," said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.). "He's a great speaker, a great storyteller. I don't think his presence swayed any minds."

    Hyde was a little more pointed in a subsequent news conference, rejecting the criticism that managers had no sympathy for the human equation. "My God . . . you'd be inhuman if you didn't have compassion for what the president is going through and his family," he said. "I certainly understand it. But we have a constitutional duty to perform."

    He also defended his invocation of slain soldiers. "I'm a World War II combat veteran," he said. "I hit the beaches under Japanese fire, and I know what I was fighting for. I was fighting for freedom and . . . justice [and] the rule of law."

    Kendall, 54, the private attorney who has represented the Clintons through more than four years of Starr investigations into everything from Whitewater to the Foster suicide to the Lewinsky matter, stayed well away from rhetorical flourishes during his presentation yesterday.

    Assigned to rebut most of the obstruction allegations, Kendall provided what he called a "painstaking, perhaps even painful" analysis of the evidence in an effort to show that prosecutors had misconstrued events to make them appear ominous. Time after time, he said, often turning to glare at the prosecution table, the House managers made inferences based on suspicion but no proof.

    "They don't even have circumstantial evidence here," he said. "All they have is a theory about what happened which isn't based on any evidence, either direct or circumstantial."

    If Clinton was so petrified of Lewinsky being called to testify about their relationship in the Jones case, Kendall asked, why did he wait 11 days after first learning that she was on a witness list in December 1997 to call her and warn her? The main reason for that 2 a.m. call, Kendall said, was not to solicit a false affidavit from Lewinsky as the managers allege but to let her know that Oval Office secretary Betty Currie's brother had died.

    Kendall reminded senators no fewer than 17 times of Lewinsky's statements to FBI agents and before the grand jury in which she denied being told to lie under oath. "'No one ever asked me to lie, and I was never promised a job for my silence,'" Kendall quoted her at one point. Then looking over at the House managers, he asked, "Is there something difficult to understand here?"

    Senators will have the chance to ask their own questions beginning at 1 p.m. today. After extended negotiations, Republican and Democratic leaders reached a "gentleman's agreement" on the format for this stage of the trial.

    In what appeared to be a concession to Democrats, Republicans abandoned earlier plans to allot the time between parties in two-hour chunks and instead decided to alternate question by question, with Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) serving as "conduits" for their parties' respective questions. And in what appeared to be a concession to Republicans, Democrats dropped their insistence on limiting responses to five minutes.

    The two leaders will group the written questions by category and send them to Rehnquist. "We are not controlling what the questions may be," Lott told reporters, "except that we do not want inappropriate questions about salacious matters and we don't want duplication."

    Staff writers Helen Dewar, Guy Gugliotta and Al Kamen contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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