Monday, February 15, 1999

Week of 02/15/1999

How the GOP Lost The Impeachment Trial
- by David Matthews 2

As I began typing this article, the final chapter of the Impeachment Trial of William Jefferson Clinton was being made in the halls of the US Senate. House managers and lawyers for the Clinton Administration made their closing arguments before the Senators, and in return, the Senators were hashing out what kind of endgame scenario they should play.

Conservatives knew they lacked the votes to remove Clinton from office, yet they were unwilling to provide any less of a punishment such as a censure. They were also scratching their heads in frustration, trying vainly to understand how they could turn out to be the real losers in this sad and chaotic affair.

The Republicans thought they had a sure-fire thing with the impeachment of President Clinton. They had the facts on their side and revenge on their mind. It was an airtight case. Clinton lied under oath. They had the evidence to prove it. They had the Senate history of impeaching judges who lied under oath. This would be their revenge for Watergate and for Iran-Contra, and the embarrassment that those two scandals caused the GOP.

And yet, when the final votes were tallied, the GOP couldn’t even secure a majority to convict, never mind the two-thirds majority that was required by the Constitution to oust the President. They lost five members on the charge of perjury and ten on the charge of obstruction of justice.

So what happened? How did Clinton beat the rap?

"It’s Not About Sex" - The four-word mantra that the Republicans used turned out to be one of the key elements to their own downfall. "It’s not about sex," the GOP people would say, "it’s about perjury." "It’s not about sex, it’s about lying under oath." "It’s not about sex, it’s about lying to the American people." "It’s not about sex, it’s about having an affair with someone who works under you."

But the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth of the matter is that is WAS about sex. Sex was the lynchpin of the scandal grenade. It made the media pay attention to what the Office of Independent Council was doing. It galvanized the moralists to act, and thus got them to lobby their supporters in the Congress to act. No other scandal could do that - from Whitewater to Vince Foster to the Travel Office to the GOP files to the 96 Campaign, the media kept themselves as far away as possible from implicating the Clinton Administration of doing anything illegal. But talk about Monica Lewinsky, "the stain," and "the cigar," and it gets front page billing on newspapers. Dozens of newspaper editorials demanded that Clinton resign just because he had sexual relations with someone other than Hillary and then lied about it. Not because of Whitewater. Not because of Vince Foster. Not because of the White House Travel Office. Not because of the 96 Campaign scandal.

Sex was also the Achilles heel of the Republican charge to oust Clinton. The more the GOP tried to deny it, the more facts that came out about Republican skeletons. One such skeleton cost would-be Speaker Bob Livingston of Louisiana of not only the leadership of the US House but also his job. Other skeletons served as embarrassing reminders to more veteran members of the Washington elite like Rep. Henry Hyde, or signs of utter hypocrisy as in the case of Rep. Dan Burton, who called Clinton a "scumbag" on the floor of the House but then was very silent after it was revealed he had a child from his past illicit affair.

Worse yet, the sordid details of the Starr Report served to hasten the end of the Senate trial as Senators piously snubbed their noses at the thought of seeing Monica Lewinsky on the floor of the Senate describing the President’s "penmanship" in front of the nation. After all, its one thing to watch in mild amusement as the members of the US House "degrade" themselves over this subject.. it is another thing to let it happen to their own body politic.

Spin Amok - There is a reason why Bill Clinton has earned the nickname "Big Bubba Spin" in these columns and it’s not because it sounds both trendy and insulting. Bill Clinton is a career politician who plays the political game just as good or better than the Beltway elite, and in Washington D.C. that is actually a compliment. As with any good politician, Clinton’s staff has a hair trigger on the spin gun, and anything that remotely makes Clinton look bad is instantly attacked, degraded, downplayed, diluted or otherwise bastardized.

There is no coincidence that the media was running a near daily public opinion poll as the "L’affair Lewinsky" moved to its inevitable conclusion, nor is it a coincidence that those polls were always and increasingly on an upswing for Clinton approval. The polls were used to validate Clinton’s actions, and only now are the journalists starting to distance themselves from all that political white noise. One would think that Clinton was running for reelection for a second time considering all the polls that came out. I would wonder what all those pollsters are going to do now that the Impeachment trial is over, but with the 2000 election just a year away no doubt the pollsters will be able to keep making their mortgage payments well into the next millenium.

And when the public got sick and tired of seeing Clinton’s poor man’s WC Fields face minus the top hat, the spin turned to his family. "Poor Hillary," we’re told. "Poor Chelsea," they whine. "How could he do this to them? How could he cheat on them?" The guilt factor is nothing new, but usually someone has to be six feet in the ground for this kind of overkill to happen.

The Senate - Of the two houses that make up the US Congress, the US Senate is the one that really tries to live up to the moniker of "Gods of Mount Morality."

The biggest mistake that can be made of the impeachment trial is found in role of the members of the US Senate. Yes, it was a trial, presided by Chief Justice William Rehnquist of the Supreme Court, and the members of the Senate did sit in judgement of the president. But don’t ever refer to them as "jurors." They hate that term. It sounds too… normal. Too mortal for their tastes.

Folks, I sat on a jury once. In fact, I was the jury foreman. I can tell you first hand it is not a simple process even in a non-scandalous case like the kind I had to sit through. It was dry, long, and tedious. Myself and the 11 others on this jury spent a week in the servitude of the court, not able to go to work or discuss the matter with anyone outside of the court or amongst ourselves until the time we could deliberate about it.

But anyone who had aspirations of the Senate going through something like that was sorely disappointed, because the rules were different.

The Senate could decide whether or not to have a trial. They could decide how long that trial was to last. They could continue to do business in the morning and continue the trial in the afternoon. They could decide whether or not to dismiss the case. They could decide whether or not to allow depositions or to allow them on the floor of the Senate in live testimony. They didn’t even have to have to render a decision based on any rule of law or the preponderance of the evidence. They could vote to convict or acquit on nothing more than a whim and it would still be legal.

These were decisions that the Senate gave themselves because they could make the rules as they went along. No other political body could do that. The House had to follow the rules of the Constitution in bringing forth impeachment charges. The Chief Justice was forced to abide by the Constitution. The members of the Senate, however, went for the most part by their own rules, and their only Constitutional limitation was that they had to have two-thirds majority to oust the President.

There is no doubt that had the Senate been forced to follow the same rules as any other jury body in the real world, this trial would still be going on.. and perhaps even with a closer margin for conviction.

Not Like Nixon - There have been constant comparisons between Presidents Clinton and Nixon in the past year. Both were career politicians who played the public like a harp from Hell, and both were embroiled in scandal concerning their past offices. Clinton had Whitewater, Nixon had "Checkers." Nixon’s charges against him were serious charges of abuse of power, and were seen as such in the public eye. Clinton’s charges concerned lying under oath about an affair with an intern, and his attempts to keep such information secret. Not exactly serious charges of abuse of power, and certainly not seen as such in the public eye.

But the comparisons ended when the House actually impeached Clinton. Nixon, for all of his political abuses, was at least honorable enough to resign from office rather than have the Congress go through the process of removing him. Clinton, on the other hand, has no such sense of honor. Rather, he turns to the easily-manipulated polls to validate his actions.

While history was first cruel to Nixon, but kind at the end of his life, it is hoped that the reverse would be true for Clinton when his life story is fully told.

Not Serious Charges - Finally, we need to look at the charges themselves. While perjury is a serious charge, one usually looks at the kind of charges Nixon was accused of when they think of things that would warrant the removal of the President. They think of the abuses of power that degrades the office of the President far worse than just in appearances. Things like … oh .. enacting laws that violate the Constitution of the United States. Things like .. oh .. enacting regulations that eliminate personal privacy. Things like .. oh .. using the force of the federal government against legislation that certain states have passed. Come to think of it.. those are the things that are being done already, not just by President Clinton, but also with the blessings - and sometimes the encouragement - of the Congress.

But it is ultimately unlikely that such serious charges against the American people would be filed as long as it is activities that Congress approves of, and activities that would also warrant the removal of many in Congress as well.

So in the end, what did we learn from all this? We learned how a career politician can get away with whatever he wants as long as he shoves enough polls down our throats. We learned how the members of Congress cannot get past their obsession with suppressing sex to deal with the abuses of power that goes on. We learned that Congress can dish out the lies but can’t take them. We learned that Bill Clinton isn’t the only member of Washington D.C. who abuses the power they’re given, but rather he’s the one who got caught.

Finally, we learned that we get the government we deserve. We as voters put these people in office, and those of us who spent their time on Election Day doing nothing but complaining about the two most tyrannical political parties and don’t make an appearance at their local ballot box are just as guilty of our political morass as those of us who re-elected a socialist for President and put conservative moralists in the Congress.

At the end of 1996, when people were talking about impeachment but haven’t yet done anything about it, I made a prediction that Bill Clinton would be leaving the same way he came in - with a wave and a smile. And while it looked for a little while like the beltway elite would prove me wrong, I now have no doubt that in January of 2001, when the door closes on Air Force One for his final trip out of Washington as President, Bill Clinton will be laughing his ass off for pulling off the biggest hoax on the American people.

No comments: