Meanwhile, on the defense; House attack: President's need to prevent removal from office is not politics as usual.


ONLY ONCE before did a president mount a defense in the Senate against removal from office. And not on the day he challenged Congress to carry out his legislative agenda.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Clinton's self-defense is vigorous on two fronts. The first is to argue in constitutional law that the House charges -- if true -- do not justify removal from office.

The second is to dispute those charges, telling senators not to assume that Mr. Clinton did what the House managers claim.

White House counsel Charles Ruff was matter-of-fact yesterday in the constitutional arguments, in analyzing the differences between impeaching a judge appointed for life and a president, elected by the people, and in dissecting the articles of impeachment.

Today and tomorrow the White House will rebut the factual case, showing it is prepared for a robust trial. Such a trial could last a long time. The often-stated White House desire for no witnesses should be dropped. So should senatorial squeamishness over sordid testimony and wholly public proceedings. But such a trial should not be held.

The House case against President Clinton falls of its own weight. The effort of managers to argue that it rises to the level required for removal fell woefully short. Mr. Clinton's deceptions cannot carry Rep. Henry J. Hyde's rhetorical charge of a calculated plot to undermine the rule of law.

Mr. Hyde betrayed the weakness of his argument when he defended presidential lying on great matters of state while castigating private lies. House managers spent less time discussing obstruction of justice, their more serious charge that is even more difficult to prove. As Mr. Ruff pointed out, they repeatedly alleged presidential lies in the Paula Jones lawsuit although that article of impeachment was rejected by the House.

The White House team may still prove as unconvincing as the House managers. If so, the minutiae of the case will be examined and disputed for months to come.

Pub Date: 1/20/99

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