WASHINGTON -- The story goes that when Thomas Jefferson and George Washington argued one morning about the future role of the U.S. Senate, Jefferson poured coffee from his cup into a saucer.
"Why did you do that?" Washington asked.
"To cool it off, of course," Jefferson said.
"Just so," Washington said. "We will pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it off."
But Washington and Jefferson never imagined that 212 years later a trial of a president for lying about sex would turn the Senate into a bubbling cauldron of passions, politics and intrigue. Forget the old boys' coffee-saucer theory -- that the august Senate would always chill the fevers of the unruly House.
Forget dignity, decorum and gentility.
The trial of President Clinton threatens to turn the Senate into a porn peep show on the X-rated level of a Linda Lovelace video.
The circus would turn the stomachs of Washington and Jefferson, not to mention Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who's helpless to prevent the carnival of sleaze.
Trouble is, Mr. Lott's not in charge. Chaos reigns.
Most cool, sensible senators yearn for a trial that's mercifully short and civil. So do most polled Americans. But rabid House Republicans, hungry for vindication of their lopsided impeachment, want a trial that's long, lurid and messy.
My guess is that long, lurid and messy will win.
For a yardstick, the 1868 trial of Andrew Johnson (he escaped by one vote) lasted 74 days. The 1999 Senate might squirm that long before it shakes off the mess.
Even if there's never anything close to 67 votes to drum out Mr. Clinton, the Senate and the presidency might be damaged in a partisan nightmare that would disgust Washington and Jefferson.
But the worldly wise founders of 1787 never dreamed someday a Monica Lewinsky would be in the Senate well, describing where, why and how a president touched her.
Or a Linda Tripp would regurgitate her girl-gab tapes. Or Betty Currie, Vernon Jordan and independent counsel Ken Starr's cast would replay their lines while presiding Chief Justice William Rehnquist wonders how he wandered into this Jerry Springer madhouse.
Whether this sleazy parade happens depends on the war of wills between Mr. Lott and the Republican right. Mr. Lott worries that a bootless, steamy trial will hurt 2000 chances of senators in pro-Clinton states. But impeachment Republicans, notably House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde and his 13 "managers," are desperate for a last chance to bloody Mr. Clinton and salvage reputations.
Mr. Lott loved the idea pushed by Sens. Slade Gordon, a Washington Republican, and Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat -- a streamlined five-day trial, no witnesses. He got a chilly call from Mr. Hyde, who pontificated about "constitutional process." Result: no quick exit.
Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, who predicts "the most important trial in the history of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence," agrees: "It's hard to have a trial without witnesses."
Question No. 1: If Mr. Hyde insists live bodies are vital to nail Mr. Clinton's guilt on perjury and obstruction of justice, why didn't his House panel call a single witness?
House hard-liners, especially Reps. Lindsey Graham and Steve Buyer, insinuate that hidden dynamite would blow Mr. Clinton out of the water. Rep. Tom DeLay, the Texas Hammer, hints that if the evidence is revealed, 67 votes to convict the prez would magically appear.
Another Jane Doe
The "evidence"? Well, it's about "Jane Doe No. 5," who in the Paula Jones suit denied an Arkansas sexual encounter with Mr. Clinton. She told a different, tearful tale to Mr. Starr's gumshoes, who stuffed it in a footnote. The House squad thinks her unproven bought or pressured silence would doom Mr. Clinton.
Question No. 2: If this murky "Jane Doe" case is pivotal, why was she hardly mentioned in House impeachment theatrics? Why wait until now?
No wonder Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, accuses House meddlers of "condescending arrogance." That's the human dynamic at play beneath the Clinton trial -- the proud Senate lions are upset that House peasantry would tell their superiors how to try a president.
After all, senators watched disdainfully as Mr. Hyde's impeachment panel staged a snarling TV brawl worthy of the World Wrestling Federation. Mr. Lieberman warns only a brief, decorous Senate trial can avoid the House's "partisan rancor."
I doubt there's any way this mix of politics, egos and ambitions won't brew up a nasty trial. The silliest suggestion is that it would be unseemly for Mr. Clinton to go ahead with his Jan. 19 State of the Union speech.
Come on, what could be more surreal than Mr. Clinton's address in January '98? Remember? The Lewinsky story had just exploded. Mr. Clinton coolly never mentioned the scandal.
State of the Union
Why is it more bizarre for Mr. Clinton to address the nation's future while a Senate jury debates his fate?
You sense that nobody -- not Mr. Lott, Mr. Hyde, certainly not Mr. Clinton -- is in control of events. The sex trial of a president may be a long, brutish, bickering porn show.
Washington and Jefferson, avert your eyes.
Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.
Pub Date: 1/07/99