On Thursday, the 100 senators of the 106th U.S. Congress were sworn in as jurors to hear the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton. The legislators, who consider themselves part of “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” thus began the second such trial in U.S. history, 131 years after their predecessors failed by one vote to remove then President Andrew Johnson. The chance that the outcome of this hearing will be any different is remote; the two-thirds majority needed to convict the president is assumed to be out of reach.
Still, dismissing the possibility would be rash. After the Republican Party was trounced in midterm elections last November, it was widely assumed that the House of Representatives would quickly wrap up the impeachment proceedings and end the mess. It did not. And even though senators are acutely attuned to public opinion — and Mr. Clinton’s approval rating is soaring — they quickly shot down a bipartisan proposal to hold a quick trial and then censure the president.
Instead, the Senate has opted for a real trial, even though bargaining over how the hearing will be conducted continued right up to Thursday’s swearing-in ceremony. A real trial is the right decision, even though it has risks of its own. At a time of growing public disillusionment with politics — aggravated in part by the whole impeachment fiasco — the Senate cannot afford to be seen as shirking what is perhaps its most important constitutional duty.
Yes, this particular impeachment drama has been sordid and embarrassing, lending itself to the worst sort of moralistic posturing and inevitable charges of hypocrisy and opportunism. It has ended or done serious damage to several once-promising political careers. For all his accomplishments, Mr. Clinton’s legacy has been permanently stained.
The fallout has intensified most politicians’ inclination to put this matter behind them; the Senate arithmetic only compounds that desire. Yet, even if the outcome of this trial is virtually assured, the manner in which the Senate conducts itself sets a precedent for the future. More important, however, the Senate has obligations to the American people. Failing to perform them because of the feared consequences to a senator’s individual interest would confirm the worst suspicions about politicians. Leadership, after all, is about leading: Public opinion polls must not dictate all outcomes.
That said, the risks must not be minimized. The most important feature of any trial is that it must be, and must be seen to be, fair. Minds must not be made up before the hearing begins. The evidence must be heard and conclusions reached on the basis of that evidence. That means the trial procedures are of critical importance.
The debate over those procedures continues. The key questions are whether witnesses will be called and how many. The more witnesses, the longer the trial will last, not only because testimony takes time, but because the White House has promised a spirited defense (as is the president’s right) if a full trial is held. And therein lies the chief danger. A trial that lasts months threatens legislative and political gridlock. Moreover, there are too many foreign-policy issues that demand Mr. Clinton’s full attention. The world does not need the distractions of a lengthy trial.
A trial that is quick, yet serious, offers hope. It would demonstrate that the United States is capable of addressing its own problems and rising to the challenges posed by its ideals. It would offer the world an example of a system that worked.
Additionally, the impeachment spectacle might even improve the way that Washington works. Eager to clean up its image — and give voters another standard by which to evaluate its actions — Congress might tackle tough issues that it would normally sidestep as being too sensitive. Republicans, anxious to avoid being blamed for their crusade against Mr. Clinton, would, by this logic, demonstrate their ability to manage Congress and pass important legislation. The selection of Mr. Dennis Hastert, a genial, no-nonsense Republican who is well liked on both sides of the aisle, as the new speaker of the House could signal a return to collegiality in the Congress.
Of course, Mr. Clinton has a role in this as well. He must work with the Congress to move the country beyond this melodrama. That requires a more cooperative attitude on his part and an end to the stonewalling that has characterized his defense to date. If Congress extends a hand to Mr. Clinton, he should accept it. Perhaps something good will emerge from this sordid mess after all.
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