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Prosecutors defend their case against the president; But Clinton should not be indicted, Hyde says; THE IMPEACHMENT VERDICT


WASHINGTON -- Firmly repudiated by the Senate, the House Republican prosecutors defended yesterday their prosecution of President Clinton, even as their leader, Rep. Henry J. Hyde, suggested that the president should not be criminally indicted for his offenses.

"I don't think indicting and criminally trying him, after what we have all been through, is going to be helpful to the country," Hyde, an Illinois Republican, told reporters in the Judiciary Committee room where the House impeachment hearings were held last fall. "I think we ought to put something to bed or put it on the shelf."

Hyde recounted a conversation he had had with Ronald Reagan more than two decades ago, after President Richard M. Nixon resigned at the end of the Watergate crisis.

"He said that he assumed the president got up every morning with a ball of lead in his stomach, knowing he had been leader of the free world and now was disgraced," Hyde said. Reagan, Hyde said, "thought it would not be good to have a president, [a] former president, in jail, in prison. And I must say that prospect is off-putting to me, too."

Despite failing to win even a simple majority of 51 on either of the two impeachment articles, the prosecutors insisted that they had been justified in pressing ahead.

"We did the right thing," said Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia, a vehement Clinton critic who has attacked the procedures in the Senate trial that limited the prosecutors' case. "The Constitution, out there in America, among American citizens who care deeply about their country, is alive and well and was strengthened by the process involving the House articles of impeachment."

Hyde said: "We could have studied the polls and listened to the pundits and decided that following the Constitution was not in our political best interest. Instead, we studied the Constitution, reviewed the precedents and proceeded forward according to the law."

The prosecutors repeatedly expressed frustration at the restrictions imposed on them by the Senate's Republican leadership, which barred live witnesses and allowed only the use of three videotaped depositions. Yesterday, the prosecutors accused Democrats and the handful of moderate Republicans who voted to acquit Clinton of reaching their verdict on political grounds.

Asked whether the procedures agreed to by Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott had doomed the prosecutors to failure, Rep. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said: "What he had in front of him was a bloc of Democrats who were never going to vote to allow any development of the facts, period. And he had some [Republican] folks who were in politically difficult situations. He had people in the country saying, 'Let's get this trial over.'

"So, he developed a procedure that made the trial almost impossible to get a witness, only because I think he had to," Graham said.

Pointing to the harshly worded censure proposals that Senate Democrats pushed for unsuccessfully, several prosecutors argued that they evidently had proven that Clinton broke the law.

"The problem all along has been that a conviction automatically means removal under the Constitution, and this has caused hesitation for a number of senators," said Rep. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican who took a leading role in the prosecution of his fellow Arkansan. "It appears that more than two-thirds of the Senate agree that the factual case was clearly established by the House managers."

In fact, most Senate Democrats have refused to sign on to any censure resolution that includes an acknowledgment that the president committed crimes. But they have almost unanimously deplored Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky and his efforts to conceal it as morally repugnant and indefensible.

While seeking to justify the strategy they followed in prosecuting their case, the Republican managers eagerly anticipated life after the impeachment trial.

Hutchinson said he looked forward to taking walks in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. Rep. James E. Rogan, a junior lawmaker from California who assumed a high profile during the trial, talked about making up lost time with his wife and young daughters.

Hyde, 74, whose House career began nearly a quarter-century ago, spoke of his hope "to slay many more dragons," so his career would not be defined by having led the charge to oust Clinton.

In an interview, Graham spoke with regret about how he will be remembered for his highly visible role in prosecuting Clinton.

"This will define me, in terms of my political career, forever -- just as the president's first paragraph will be, 'the second president in history to be impeached,' " Graham said. "I don't like it any more than he does. I felt that I did my job, but I felt that it was something I had to do."

"Who came up here to do this?" asked Graham, who was elected to Congress in 1994 as part of a new Republican majority. "I came up here for the 'Contract with America,' with a vision for how things would be different."

House prosecutors had achieved one thing, he said: "If you're ever sued as a president in the future, you're going to think twice before you cheat."

Pub Date: 2/13/99

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