Suspenseful it was not. And yet, when Chief Justice WilliamH. Rehnquist called for the verdict in President Clinton's impeachment trial,he suddenly placed the weight of history on 100 sets of shoulders in thehushed Senate chamber.
"Senators, how say you?" he asked, closely following his 19th-centuryscript. "Is the respondent, William Jefferson Clinton, guilty or not?"
It took just a half-hour for the pageantry of an impeachment judgment, oneof the rarest spectacles in American democracy, to play out. When it ended, asexpected, with Clinton's acquittal, "this year of agony that the Americanpeople have endured," as Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine put it, wasfinally over.
An overflow crowd of spectators in the Senate balcony peered down, andglum-faced House prosecutors watched in pained resignation, as senators rose,one by one, behind their desks."Guilty," they called out, gravely, as theirnames were called. Or, more often, "not guilty."
Some, such as Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, spoke in afirm voice, putting special emphasis on the word "not." Others could scarcelybe heard.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, whose motion to dismiss theimpeachment charges last month was the turning point in the trial, had termeda presidential impeachment verdict "the most heart-wrenching of any vote thatany senator will ever be called on to make." When his time came to answer, the81-year-old Democrat -- who had said last week that he believed Clinton'sconduct rose "to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors" -- stood andmumbled "not guilty" in a low voice.
Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican, said "guilty" in a tone that showed nomercy. Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, gave a nod of assentbefore giving the same response.
Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, the 96-year-old physicalwonder who is the oldest member of Congress, sang out "guilty" with vigor. AndSen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, applied his own spin. "Notproven," he proclaimed, "therefore not guilty."
At 12: 37 p.m., Rehnquist rapped his gavel to silence the spectators'galleries, then announced that the Senate had failed to remove Clinton fromoffice.
He ordered that the news be communicated to the secretary of state,Madeleine K. Albright, in accordance with Senate rules.
The trial had lasted five weeks, but it seemed to take much longer. By thetime the final hour arrived, an almost giddy, last-day-of-school atmospherehad taken over.
When the doors to the chamber were thrown open to the public shortly beforenoon -- after three days of secret deliberations -- senators were alreadypaying their respects informally to the lawyers on both sides -- and tocolleagues at the opposite end of the partisan divide.
Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, one of Clinton's strongestdefenders, offered a friendly handshake to Rep. Henry J. Hyde, leader of theHouse prosecution team. Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott got a warm hugfrom Democratic Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut.
Down at the White House defense table, Thurmond delivered farewell gifts --Clementine oranges -- to his favorite members of the Clinton team, NicoleSeligman and Cheryl Mills. The president's lead private attorney, David E.Kendall, had to be satisfied with a Thurmond handshake.
At the back of the chamber, in seats reserved for House members, were someof Clinton's staunchest backers, including Reps. Maxine Waters of California,John Lewis of Georgia, Bart Stupak of Michigan, Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texasand Diana DeGette of Colorado.
On the Republican side, Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan settled in to watchhistory being made.
In the visitors' galleries, packed beyond capacity for the first time inthe trial, were such trial regulars as Lynda Robb, the wife of Virginia Sen.Charles S. Robb and daughter of Lyndon B. Johnson, and former Ambassador JeanKennedy Smith, a Clinton appointee and sister of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy andPresident John F. Kennedy.
Also on the scene were some familiar faces from the all-Monica,all-impeachment cable TV networks, including Abbe Lowell, the chief Democraticcounsel to the House Judiciary Committee, and Gilbert Davis, one of theoriginal lawyers for Paula Corbin Jones, the Arkansas woman whose sexualmisconduct suit against Clinton helped make the impeachment process possible.
"You like to have closure on something you start," Davis said, by way ofexplaining his presence in the balcony.
Down on the Senate floor, Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, wasscurrying about, gathering autographs from fellow senators on her copy of thearticles of impeachment.
A spokesman said Landrieu may not have gotten 99 senatorial signatures, but"she got the chief justice to sign it."
A glossy red folder with a gold Senate seal had been placed on eachsenator's desk. Inside were copies of the prayers delivered at the start ofeach trial session by the Senate chaplain, Lloyd John Ogilvie.
The chaplain functioned as a kind of one-man Greek chorus, commenting oneach day's impeachment issue as the trial evolved. His collected prayers areto be printed in a book, one of many works-in-progress spawned by the MonicaLewinsky scandal.
As the votes on the two articles of impeachment were taken, senators becameeyewitnesses to history as well as participants. In an unusual spectacle,dozens of Republicans and Democrats personally kept track of the progress ofthe verdict, using pen or pencil to mark the long, narrow tally sheetsnormally used by Senate clerks to record roll-call votes.
Democratic Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia explained that hewanted to give a copy of the tally sheet to his children, Valerie and Charles,as a keepsake from this memorable day.
"I wonder if they'll keep it," he wondered aloud. "Kids aren't very goodabout that sort of thing."
After Rehnquist formally announced the verdict, he read a brief tribute tothe senators. The chief justice noted, to considerable laughter from hishosts, that he had experienced "culture shock" in moving from the highlystructured world of the Supreme Court to "the more free-form environment ofthe Senate."
"I leave you now, a wiser but not a sadder man," Rehnquist added.
"Our work as a court of impeachment is now done."
In a sign that the senators considered him to have become (almost) one oftheir own, Rehnquist was presented with the same plaque -- it looked more likesomething from a Kiwanis club banquet -- that is given to senators who presideover the Senate for at least 100 hours.
As a delegation of senators escorted Rehnquist from the chamber, he got a"well-done" pat on the shoulder from Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska.
By this point, gusts of self-congratulation were sweeping the chamber.
From the outset of the trial, it had been clear that -- at least from thesenators' point of view -- the impeachment proceedings were as much about theSenate as they were about Clinton.
Though divided in their view of the president's guilt -- as the largelyparty-line verdict would confirm -- the senators were unified in theirdetermination not to be perceived as rank partisans in the same way that theHouse had been during its impeachment sessions.
Yesterday, Republicans and Democrats alike went out of their way to praisethe bonding experience of the trial, especially the lengthy sessions heldbehind closed doors.
"I've never heard United States senators bare their souls and their heartsand their minds the way I have heard it in the last three days," remarkedLott, calling those speeches "magnificent."
Just before moving on to other business, the senators rose to their feet tolaud Lott and his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Tom Daschle, for having guidedthem safely through the treacherous currents of impeachment.
While their colleagues applauded, the smiling leaders joined hands in thewell of the Senate in a celebratory handshake.
Senators rushing to the microphones outside seemed as eager to praisethemselves as they were to condemn Clinton for having brought the impeachmentordeal upon the nation.
"Thank God this is over," said Democrat Charles E. Schumer of New York, nowin his second month as a senator. "The partisan nature of what happened in theHouse did not occur in the Senate. We're all working together."
Rhode Island Sen. John H. Chafee, one of five GOP defectors who votedagainst conviction on both articles, conceded that "there wasn't that sense ofdrama" in the verdict "because we knew in advance how it was going to comeout."
But, the veteran senator said, "we've done a good job. We've conductedourselves well and now we're finished, thank goodness."
Republican Sen. Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire said he's convincedhistory will look kindly on those, like himself, who voted to remove Clintonfrom office.
Insisting that he wasn't frustrated by the outcome, Smith conceded thatClinton had, once again, slipped the noose. "He won," the Republican senatorsaid.
"He always wins."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun