Think ouster is impossible? Listen to Mac Mathias

LOOKING A little more serious, isn't it? Chief justice swearing in senators as jurors. Henry Hyde delivering impeachment papers. Somber newscasters referring to the president by his full name, including the middle one. No sign of the president admitting to perjury. And yet, a lot of Americans probably believe this thing, now in the hands of the grown-ups, is going to end next week in some sort of wrist slap.

Two-thirds of the 100 senators - there are 55 Republicans and 45 Democrats - must vote to convict Bill Clinton if he is to be removed from office. Twelve Democrats would have to switch over to the Dark Side and find the president guilty.

Anybody think that's impossible?

Oh, yeah? You want to put your lunch where your hunch is? I'll take that action, just to make it interesting. (I'm picking Jacksonville to make the Super Bowl, too.)

"As of now, many people say it's impossible that the Senate will vote to convict," says Maryland's former U.S. Sen. Charles McC. Mathias. "But who can say 30 days in advance?"

People who assume the president can't be convicted aren't considering what might happen once all the senators consider all the facts.

Mathias, contacted for a dose of reason and wisdom at his law office on G Street in Washington, believes Clinton's alleged perjury constitutes an impeachable offense.

"Perjury before a grand jury is an attack on our judicial system," Mathias says. "People have not looked at this in those definitive terms." Once you do, Mathias says, it gets harder to dismiss Clinton's answers under oath to questions about his extramarital affairs as trivial, or, at least, not rising to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors.

"This is the man," he adds for emphasis, "sworn to uphold the judicial branch."

Considering perjury, examining the linguistic nuance of William Jefferson Clinton's statements to the grand jury and comparing them to those of other witnesses, could be tedious. Mathias wonders if the Senate leadership can frame Clinton's trial within certain time limits. He can't imagine, for instance, that the president's defense team would stipulate to all facts in the Starr report. Witnesses will have to be heard.

And once they are called and questions asked, there's no telling what additional questions will be asked, or what additional witnesses will be needed, and how much time all that will take. Linda Tripp could be called as a witness, Mathias notes; senators might want to better understand the circumstance of her initial contact with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.

"It's a people mover, and once it starts moving, it's hard to stop it," Mathias says of the Senate trial.

"Each day could bring some burning question that demands attention. If something turns up, if they start lifting the rocks and looking under them, who knows where it will go? It's highly dangerous to Clinton. Who knows what could turn up?"

Mathias, the moderate-to-liberal Republican who left Congress in 1986 after 26 years, says the time for putting this "grotesque spectacle" to a quick end probably passed last month, before the House vote to impeach Clinton. Had the president been offered a deal - a censure vote in return for his admission to perjury - we might have had a nice, quiet January in Washington.

"Had I been a member of the House, I would have worked very hard to avoid an impeachment vote," Mathias says. "If the president had been directly approached with that opportunity - if they had said to him, 'Mr. President, you can avoid impeachment if you make this statement' [admitting to perjury] - the House could have committed an act of grace. But we'll never know now. We're beyond that."

Mac Mathias - nice to talk to him again. He's 76 years old, still regarded for his intellect and integrity, his sense of humor, his knowledge of American history and the law. He's the kind of Republican they don't much make anymore. A couple of years ago, Mathias said: "I cannot accept the fact that the [GOP] has changed so drastically that there isn't a place for moderate Republicans, but I'm realistic that it isn't a very large space."

In mid-December, as the House considered articles of impeachment against Clinton, Mathias suggested a moderate course to the Republican-led Congress. "The cost-benefit ratio of impeachment leads me to counsel Congress to stay its hand unless the president is intransigent in his refusal to accept reality," he wrote in an opinion piece in the Washington Post.

That appeared Dec. 16. The House impeached Clinton three days later. Now, the president goes on trial.

"Can you imagine Calvin Coolidge being involved in anything this grotesque?" Mathias says with a laugh. "It's foreign to anything in the history of the presidency, a spectacle for the world to see. As bizarre as it is, it is a very sad situation. Clearly the president has a problem, a human failing, an abnormality. This is a tragedy embracing his family and the whole country, in a very real way."

Clinton's actions have diminished the presidency.

"Without doubt," Mathias says. "The presidency was always viewed as such a unique position, the president held in reverential awe. You got an invitation to the White House, it was your duty to show up, an honor."

Mathias cringes at the way Clinton has used the White House as a fun palace for political backers over the past six years. The interludes with Monica Lewinsky outside the Oval Office were part of a larger pattern of offensive exploitative behavior in the historic mansion on Pennsylvania Avenue.

"He's a near genius," Mathias says of Clinton. "He comes up with solid responses to difficult situations. He has remarkable endurance; carrying on the way he has during this flap has been amazing. He gives a good speech. He has good ideas. But when you are in public life, you are subject to scrutiny, and he should have assumed his every action would have been scrutinized. Bill Clinton brought a lot of this on himself."

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