The Red Queen Gambit

Without a certified blockbuster story on Friday, we are all in for another long weekend of TV pundits with furrowed brows bloviating over the proper punishment for Bill Clinton. (A modest suggestion: Condemn the president to spend an entire week watching endless replays of all the Judiciary Committee hearings).

Amid all the tedious thrice-told arguments on both sides, Chatterbox is intrigued by a fresh notion being floated by one of his favorite GOP strategists, Rich Galen, who heads GOPAC. As Galen sketches out in Friday’s “Mullings,” his regular e-mail newsletter, “The American public must understand that the impeachment vote in the House is the punishment. It goes no further. The Senate has to take it up, but it can be disposed of in a couple of hours.”

In other words, let the House Republicans impeach Clinton for perjury with the full knowledge that the Senate will promptly vote not to remove him from office. The stigma of impeachment would go on Clinton’s permanent record. But the nation would be spared the ludicrous mock drama of a protracted Senate impeachment trial, since we already know the outcome.

Galen is, of course, trying to come up with a justification for what the headless-horseman House Republicans seem poised to do anyway–impeach Clinton. But even though Galen doesn’t go into the details, his proposal for a one-day Senate trial would require the granddaddy of all political deals. The key players would be Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Chief Justice William Rehnquist (who under the Constitution must preside over an impeachment trial of a president), and the ever co-operative Clinton White House. Playing out this political fantasy, the president’s legal team might agree to a quicky trial as a way of sparing Clinton further humiliation since they know that the Senate would never convict. Rehnquist, who may have his own self-important notions of his role in this solemn judicial proceeding, might turn out to be a bit of an obstacle. But the real stumbling block would be the ego needs of 100 preening senators, who won’t be able to resist pretending that they are latter-day Daniel Websters with lengthy speeches for the history books.

Constitutionalists can take comfort that there is a precedent in Anglo-American jurisprudence for such a common-sense resolution to the impeachment crisis. It was, after all, the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland who decreed, “Sentence first–verdict afterwards.”

Walter Shapiro