Become a digitalPLUS subscriber. 99¢ for 4 weeks.
NewsOpinionReaders Respond

Clinton acquitted

ElectionsMisdemeanorsJustice SystemRepublican PartyWhite House

Ending a tumultuous year of political scandal, the Senateacquitted President Clinton of high crimes and misdemeanors yesterday, afterHouse prosecutors failed to muster even a bare majority of senators in favorof removing the nation's 42nd president from office.

Five weeks after the Senate convened the second presidential impeachmenttrial in history, 50 senators voted to convict the president of obstruction ofjustice -- far short of the 67 votes needed to oust him. Five Republicans --all of them Northeastern moderates -- joined all 45 Democrats in findingClinton not guilty of obstruction.

On the other charge, perjury, only 45 senators found Clinton guilty, astartling rebuke to the prosecutors. Ten Republicans, from across the countryand the political spectrum, joined a unanimous Democratic caucus in acquittingClinton of perjury.

The prosecutors had hoped for at least a simple majority on one of thecounts as a semblance of vindication of the House impeachment votes, whichwere cast almost completely along party lines.

But in the Senate, the only party line to crack was Republican. Even someRepublican senators who voted to convict acknowledged the symbolic importanceof yesterday's tallies.

"Sure, it's significant; the presidentwon," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, aUtah Republican who voted to convict Clinton on both articles of impeachment."He would have won if it was just an up-or-down vote."

The president escaped a formal reprimand after Sen. Phil Gramm, a TexasRepublican, moved to block a toughly worded censure motion drafted by Sen.Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, and Sen. Robert F. Bennett, a UtahRepublican.

The censure resolution would have formally tarred Clinton for having"deliberately misled and deceived the American people" and for "impeding" thejudicial process.

But some Republicans believed the resolution was designed to give Democratspolitical cover for their acquittal votes and represented a remedy forpresidential misconduct outside the framework of the Constitution.

Under Senate rules, censure proponents needed 67 votes to bring the motionto a vote. They drew 56.

An afternoon bomb scare deprived Democrats of a chance to informallydiscuss censure on the Senate floor -- and probably to excoriate Clinton'sconduct.

But Clinton could hardly claim exoneration from a Senate that wasbipartisan in its conclusion that his behavior, if not criminal, wasnevertheless deplorable and morally indefensible.

Two hours after his acquittal, the president pleaded for reconciliation ina brief but contrite message to the nation, trying to appear at onceremorseful and forward-looking.

"I want to say again to the American people how profoundly sorry I am forwhat I said and did to trigger these events and the great burden they haveimposed on the Congress and on the American people," he said in a Rose Gardenstatement.

"Now I ask all Americans, and I hope all Americans, here in Washington andthroughout our land, will rededicate ourselves to the work of serving ournation and building our future together. This can be and this must be a timeof reconciliation and renewal for America," he concluded.

As the president turned to go back inside the White House, a reporter askedwhether he could forgive and forget. Clinton replied, "I believe any personwho asks for forgiveness has to be prepared to give it."

The president's acquittal lacked the drama that had preceded hisimpeachment by the House. For weeks, it has been clear that the prosecutorswould never amass the two-thirds majority needed to remove a president for thefirst time in the nation's history. The only suspense concerned the finaltally.

Nevertheless, after Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist intoned, "Senators,how say you, guilty or not guilty?" the majesty of the moment was inescapable.One lawmaker after another stood in the silent Senate to deliver a verdict,some forcefully, others in barely a whisper.

A half-dozen House Democrats -- including some of the most vocal Clintondefenders -- Reps. Maxine Waters of California and John Lewis of Georgia --entered the Senate chamber to witness the trial's end.

The 13 House prosecutors, who had relentlessly pressed their case in theface of opinion polls that said Americans opposed Clinton's conviction, satglumly, especially after the perjury article garnered fewer guilty votes thanexpected.

Five Republicans -- Sens. Olympia J. Snowe and Susan M. Collins of Maine,John H. Chafee of Rhode Island, James M. Jeffords of Vermont and Arlen Specterof Pennsylvania -- voted to acquit on both articles of impeachment. On theperjury count, those five were joined by five other Republicans -- Sens. SladeGorton of Washington state, Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, Ted Stevens ofAlaska, Fred Thompson of Tennessee and John W. Warner of Virginia.

Specter voted "not proven, therefore not guilty," dashing the hopes ofSenate leaders who had believed he would opt to be recorded as voting"present" rather than for acquittal. That, at least, would have given theprosecutors a 50-49 majority on one count.

But the flashes of frustration and bitterness that the prosecutors hadshown in recent days largely faded after the votes. Indeed, the leadprosecutor, Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, even suggested that independentcounsel Kenneth W. Starr should not indict Clinton, either while the presidentis in office or after his term.

Mainly, the House prosecutors seemed as weary of the Lewinsky scandal asseems the rest of the nation.

"I'm ready to go home," said Rep. Ed Bryant of Tennessee.

Some Democrats could not resist a few partisan jabs, though no one wasproclaiming outright victory.

The final tally proved that "this was an illegitimate process from thestart," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat.

And some Republicans could not hide their disappointment. Sen. Larry E.Craig of Idaho accused the White House and the Democratic leadership ofpressuring its party rank and file to stay in line for acquittal, saying that"the other side saw it as necessary to support their president, and they did."

Few could escape the sense that Bill Clinton, the self-described "ComebackKid," had pulled off perhaps his greatest escape act yet.

But in the aftermath, the famously clubby Senate was at its clubbiest,lacking the partisan acrimony that had marred the House impeachmentproceedings. The votes seemed to reveal a deep gulf between the parties, yetsenators from both sides declared that the trial's tribulations had broughtthe senators closer.

"I came out of this with a feeling of boundless faith in these UnitedStates senators," said Sen. John Edwards, a freshman North Carolina Democratwho described his colleagues as "100 people who just wanted to do the rightthing."

In some sense, that bipartisan senatorial camaraderie was at the expense ofone person: William Jefferson Clinton. Half the Senate voted not only toconvict Clinton of high crimes and misdemeanors and to remove him from office,but also to bar him from ever holding elective office again, a punishment noteven considered for President Richard M. Nixon.

"All reasonable observers admit that the president lied under oath andundertook a substantial and purposeful effort to obstruct justice," Sen. PeteV. Domenici of New Mexico, a senior Republican, said in a statement.

Though most Democrats disagreed with Domenici's legal conclusions, theircriticism was just as blistering of Clinton's sexual conduct with a formerWhite House intern and his subsequent efforts to conceal it. Many of them tookpains not to casually dismiss the House prosecutors' case.

Sen. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin, the only Democrat to vote against amotion to dismiss the charges on Jan. 28, compared Clinton's offenses to thosethat led to the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson in 1868 andthose that led to Nixon's resignation. Johnson's offenses were weak, Feingoldsaid, while Nixon's were overwhelming.

Clinton's, he said, lay in between. "This one is a hard case, and senatorsmay see it either way," Feingold said, concluding that the president had "justbarely avoided committing obstruction of justice."

Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, said the case was not frivolous,just "mistaken" and out of proportion to the offenses. Indeed, Clinton'sstature seemed almost as diminished in many Democratic eyes as it is inRepublican eyes.

Kerry said "the president acted without courage and even without honor"throughout the Lewinsky ordeal, and the senator took pains to distance himselffrom Clinton the man, saying he would work with Clinton only because he ispresident.

"There is very significant respect for the office; that respect willcontinue," Kerry allowed. "He is the president of the United States, and wetoday made it clear he will remain president of the United States."

Still, White House lawyers said they had reason to feel relieved, if notecstatic. After the House impeachment vote, the White House feared that agroundswell of calls for Clinton's resignation could weaken his hand in theSenate. House Speaker-designate Robert L. Livingston's surprise resignationwas intended to set an example for Clinton and to provide Republicans a clubwith which to pummel the president.

Instead, according to White House legal aides, it might have had theopposite effect.

"Things had the look of spiraling of control, and if there's one thing thecountry hates, it's instability," a White House aide said.

The House Democrats' show of solidarity with Clinton after the impeachmentvote might have enraged Republicans, but it did show the Senate and the nationthat the party was holding together. Then, last month, when Robert C. Byrd ofWest Virginia, the senior Democratic senator, announced that he would proposea motion to dismiss the charges, the president knew he would survive.

"It was a somber day, really," the aide said. "But there's a sense ofrelief."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
Comments
Loading