WASHINGTON -- Suspenseful it was not. And yet, when Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist called for the verdict in President Clinton's impeachment trial, he suddenly placed the weight of history on 100 sets of shoulders in the hushed Senate chamber.
"Senators, how say you?" he asked, closely following his 19th-century script. "Is the respondent, William Jefferson Clinton, guilty or not?"
It took just a half-hour for the pageantry of an impeachment judgment, one of the rarest spectacles in American democracy, to play out. When it ended, as expected, with Clinton's acquittal, "this year of agony that the American people have endured," as Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine put it, was finally over.
An overflow crowd of spectators in the Senate balcony peered down, and glum-faced House prosecutors watched in pained resignation, as senators rose, one by one, behind their desks."Guilty," they called out, gravely, as their names were called. Or, more often, "not guilty."
Some, such as Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, spoke in a firm voice, putting special emphasis on the word "not." Others could scarcely be heard.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, whose motion to dismiss the impeachment charges last month was the turning point in the trial, had termed a presidential impeachment verdict "the most heart-wrenching of any vote that any senator will ever be called on to make." When his time came to answer, the 81-year-old Democrat -- who had said last week that he believed Clinton's conduct rose "to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors" -- stood and mumbled "not guilty" in a low voice.
Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican, said "guilty" in a tone that showed no mercy. Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, gave a nod of assent before giving the same response.
Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, the 96-year-old physical wonder who is the oldest member of Congress, sang out "guilty" with vigor. And Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, applied his own spin. "Not proven," 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 from office.
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 the time the final hour arrived, an almost giddy, last-day-of-school atmosphere had taken over.
When the doors to the chamber were thrown open to the public shortly before noon -- after three days of secret deliberations -- senators were already paying their respects informally to the lawyers on both sides -- and to colleagues at the opposite end of the partisan divide.
Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, one of Clinton's strongest defenders, offered a friendly handshake to Rep. Henry J. Hyde, leader of the House prosecution team. Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott got a warm hug from 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, Nicole Seligman 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 some of Clinton's staunchest backers, including Reps. Maxine Waters of California, John Lewis of Georgia, Bart Stupak of Michigan, Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas and Diana DeGette of Colorado.
On the Republican side, Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan settled in to watch history being made.
In the visitors' galleries, packed beyond capacity for the first time in the 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 Jean Kennedy Smith, a Clinton appointee and sister of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and President 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 Democratic counsel to the House Judiciary Committee, and Gilbert Davis, one of the original lawyers for Paula Corbin Jones, the Arkansas woman whose sexual misconduct suit against Clinton helped make the impeachment process possible.
"You like to have closure on something you start," Davis said, by way of explaining his presence in the balcony.
Down on the Senate floor, Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, was scurrying about, gathering autographs from fellow senators on her copy of the articles 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 each senator's desk. Inside were copies of the prayers delivered at the start of each trial session by the Senate chaplain, Lloyd John Ogilvie.
The chaplain functioned as a kind of one-man Greek chorus, commenting on each day's impeachment issue as the trial evolved. His collected prayers are to be printed in a book, one of many works-in-progress spawned by the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
As the votes on the two articles of impeachment were taken, senators became eyewitnesses to history as well as participants. In an unusual spectacle, dozens of Republicans and Democrats personally kept track of the progress of the verdict, using pen or pencil to mark the long, narrow tally sheets normally used by Senate clerks to record roll-call votes.
Democratic Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia explained that he wanted 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 good about that sort of thing."
After Rehnquist formally announced the verdict, he read a brief tribute to the senators. The chief justice noted, to considerable laughter from his hosts, that he had experienced "culture shock" in moving from the highly structured world of the Supreme Court to "the more free-form environment of the 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 of their own, Rehnquist was presented with the same plaque -- it looked more like something from a Kiwanis club banquet -- that is given to senators who preside over 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 the senators' point of view -- the impeachment proceedings were as much about the Senate as they were about Clinton.
Though divided in their view of the president's guilt -- as the largely party-line verdict would confirm -- the senators were unified in their determination not to be perceived as rank partisans in the same way that the House had been during its impeachment sessions.
Yesterday, Republicans and Democrats alike went out of their way to praise the bonding experience of the trial, especially the lengthy sessions held behind closed doors.
"I've never heard United States senators bare their souls and their hearts and their minds the way I have heard it in the last three days," remarked Lott, calling those speeches "magnificent."
Just before moving on to other business, the senators rose to their feet to laud Lott and his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Tom Daschle, for having guided them safely through the treacherous currents of impeachment.
While their colleagues applauded, the smiling leaders joined hands in the well of the Senate in a celebratory handshake.
Senators rushing to the microphones outside seemed as eager to praise themselves as they were to condemn Clinton for having brought the impeachment ordeal upon the nation.
"Thank God this is over," said Democrat Charles E. Schumer of New York, now in his second month as a senator. "The partisan nature of what happened in the House did not occur in the Senate. We're all working together."
Rhode Island Sen. John H. Chafee, one of five GOP defectors who voted against conviction on both articles, conceded that "there wasn't that sense of drama" in the verdict "because we knew in advance how it was going to come out."
But, the veteran senator said, "we've done a good job. We've conducted ourselves well and now we're finished, thank goodness."
Republican Sen. Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire said he's convinced history will look kindly on those, like himself, who voted to remove Clinton from office.
Insisting that he wasn't frustrated by the outcome, Smith conceded that Clinton had, once again, slipped the noose. "He won," the Republican senator said.
"He always wins."
Pub Date: 2/13/99