Clinton on Trial

Clinton on Trial

Notes from different corners of the world.
Dec. 19 1998 9:30 PM

Clinton on Trial

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Mall Pall

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The impeachment debate begins in gloom, continues in rancor.

So we're bombing Iraq, the Israeli government is collapsing, Osama Bin Laden is preparing a terrorist attack on the United States, the new House speaker is confessing adultery. Congress is impeaching the president. The millennium may still be a year away, but in Washington the end of the world seems just around the corner.

Today can't possibly be any stranger than last night's impeachment/bombing/adultery chaos, and it isn't. But in a way it's much worse. Disbelief has been replaced by gloom.

The morning starts calmly enough. As the House opens at 9 a.m., Livingston is chitchatting in the chamber. He has a calm smile on his face and looks utterly unfazed. I think to myself: Well, if he can hold it together, maybe the rest of them can, too. During the opening prayer, the chaplain pleads for "union instead of discord." Union lasts about 30 seconds. We recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The moment we finish, Rep. Steve Buyer, a fiery Indiana Republican, glares up into the press gallery and yells at the top of his lungs at a reporter, "You don't have to write during the pledge!" (When I ask Buyer about this later, he fumes, "I couldn't believe it. Everyone else was pledging allegiance and he was looking around taking notes. I thought he was an extraterrestrial. I was just stunned by his behavior.")

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The debate has lost some of its expected drama, because it is now clear that barring a Christmas miracle, the House will impeach Clinton. But even absent that tension, both sides of the chamber are full as the articles of impeachment are read. The fact that the Democratic side is full is the first real news of the day: Democrats had been discussing the possibility of protesting the impeachment debate, either by walking out or staging a "Hands Around the Capitol" (their goofy phrase, not mine). They have decided against it for the moment, though they are still considering staging a walkout tonight or tomorrow. (The debate will continue till 10 p.m. tonight, then resume tomorrow morning for an hour, to be followed by the vote.)

The debate starts in earnest around 10 a.m., when House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde lumbers to the well to cast the first stone--I mean, give the opening speech. Hyde's speech is an eloquent one, if familiar to those who've been following his committee. It sticks to Hyde's favorite theme: The rule of law is all that separates us from tyranny, and we must not allow Clinton to sabotage it. ("We cannot have one law for the ruler and one for the ruled," etc.) Hyde speaks for 20 minutes, closing with an image that I find surprisingly moving (though I can't say why). "The president is our flag bearer," he says, holding his arms out as if carrying a flagpole. "The flag is falling. Catch the flag."

Democrats pay almost no attention to Hyde's speech. In fact, they pay almost no attention to any Republican speaker this morning. (Republicans reciprocate the indifference.) The Dems talk so much during Hyde's address that Rep. Vic Fazio, D-Calif., strides up and down the aisles whispering at them to shut up lest they look and sound bad on television.

As the debate unfolds, it becomes clear why the two sides are ignoring each other. The Republicans are here to debate impeachment. Democrats are here to debate anything but. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri, who follows Hyde, disregards the Republicans' legal case against Clinton, instead hitting the day's three Democratic themes.

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First (and most speciously), Gephardt argues that it's wrong to debate impeachment as we bomb Iraq. (Later, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., actually accuses Republicans of trying to "decapitate the commander in chief at a time that we are at war," and Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich., says that "starting this proceeding today may well end up costing American lives.") Second, Gephardt smacks the Republicans for blocking a censure vote. As Gephardt says this, I glance at Majority Whip Rep. Tom DeLay, the person who has single-handedly prevented a censure vote. DeLay is studiously inattentive. And third, Gephardt denounces the poisonous politics of the Hill, which are destroying American confidence in Congress. "The politics of smear and slash and burn must end," Gephardt says. This draws a bipartisan standing ovation.

The debate continues in a strangely dissociative way. Republicans members ponderously outline the arguments for the four articles of impeachment, while Democrats condemn the entire process as illegitimate and badly timed, and deplore scandal politics.

(Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., as usual, makes the morning's most perceptive comments, savaging Republicans who say the president should resign if he's impeached. Republican leaders have, in their efforts to win undecided votes, been saying that impeachment is not a final judgment, that it is a "low bar," and that the Senate should make the final decision. Having argued that impeachment doesn't mean anything, Republicans are now saying Clinton should resign if he's impeached. This is, Frank says, "illogical" and "hypocritical.")

By noon, there are barely a score of members left in the chamber listening to the debate. The real action has moved outside to the Speaker's Lobby, where members meet reporters. It's here that the true gloom of the day is apparent. Inside the chamber, everyone applauds the pleas for an end to scandalmongering politics. Outside the chamber, it is clear that no one believes that peace, or even détente, is coming soon. Republican after Republican--even such moderates as Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia and Rep. Marge Roukema of New Jersey--attribute the Livingston adultery story to White House dirty tricks. Democrat after Democrat predicts that the next Congress will be disastrously divided. "It will be impossible to do anything in a bipartisan way. ... You can kiss Social Security reform bye-bye," says Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. "Members will not forget what happened."

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On my way out of the Capitol, I see Rep. Bob Barr, the ill-humored, impeachment-crazed Georgia Republican, holding forth to a group of reporters. Barr has just finished his floor speech, in which he quoted President John Kennedy. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., spies Barr across the room and marches over to him. Kennedy's face is red with fury.

"Anybody who has spoken at a racist organization has no right invoking my uncle's memory," Kennedy barks. He is referring to Barr's now infamous talk at the anti-miscegenation Council of Concerned Citizens.

"Young man, say what you like," Barr replies. Then he blasts Kennedy for breaching "the decorum" of the House.

"Don't call me young man," Kennedy shouts back. "I am a duly elected representative of my state."

"I'm impressed," Barr says, in a voice dripping with sarcasm. "I'm duly impressed."

It's only fitting that on this bitter, melancholy day, with impeachment all but assured, that the Republican Barr should get the last word, and that it should be an insulting one.