WASHINGTON -- With the House vote on the impeachment of President Clinton set for tomorrow, the course he has chosen of continued denial of legal guilt means that if he is to escape, it will be only because enough moderate Republicans want to save the country from the ordeal of an impeachment trial.
Some House Republicans had said that they might be persuaded to settle for censuring the president, if he would finally admit to having committed perjury by lying under oath. But Mr. Clinton's assertion in Jerusalem that "I could not admit to doing something that I am quite sure I did not do" is seen by them as a mere continuation of the same legal hair-splitting that so maddens them.
Mr. Clinton's replies to some of the 81 questions submitted to him by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde were considered so contemptuous that the House GOP included them in a separate article of impeachment alleging abuse of power.
Mr. Clinton's Rose Garden statement attempting to stem the tide, only minutes before the committee voted for the first perjury article, also backfired. His saying that if Congress should "determine that my errors of word and deed require their rebuke and censure, I am ready to accept that" was as meaningless as it was futile. So was his later remark in Jerusalem that he had "offered to make every effort to make every compromise with Congress" to avert impeachment and a subsequent trial.
What clearly is preventing Mr. Clinton from admitting that he lied under oath in a civil suit deposition and before a grand jury is his concern about facing a criminal indictment once he leaves office. But such an admission appears to have been the minimum price many on-the-fence Republicans wanted him to pay for them to vote against impeachment.
Without it, Mr. Clinton's chance of escaping impeachment by the House is out of his hands. It will rest on whether enough of those Republicans buy one or both of two arguments made strenuously but not effectively by his lawyers before the Judiciary Committee:
1) What he did does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense.
2) The country should not be put through a Senate trial.
Now the White House through various aides is calling on the American people, said by polls to be overwhelmingly opposed to impeachment, to make that view known directly to the House members. The success of such a plea depends on whether the public can yet be aroused to come to the defense of the president, possibly by marching in protest. That hasn't happened yet.
One reason may be that it's hard to march against impeachment while holding one's nose over the president's squalid behavior. Even House Democrats defending Mr. Clinton preface their remarks with condemnation of that behavior. Also, the predicted readiness of 34 Democrats to block conviction by the necessary two-thirds vote in the Senate saps some urgency from the situation for impeachment foes.
Mr. Hyde for one has worked hard to sell the argument that a
vote in the House to impeach is not a vote to remove Mr. Clinton from office, but only a fulfillment of the House's constitutional responsibility to pass on to the Senate as credible the charges against him.
It is an argument strenuously challenged by many Democrats and certain to be pursued vigorously on the House floor.
In all this, Mr. Clinton himself is better off keeping his mouth shut than in reiterating how sorry he is without owning up to perjury. For once there's no more the Great Schmoozer can say to talk his way out of the deepest hole he's dug himself into yet.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.
Pub Date: 12/16/98