Clinton on Trial

The Senate says, “I do.”

As the senators file into the chamber this morning, I feel my first genuine hope in weeks. Maybe the trial will end honorably. During the House impeachment proceedings, especially during the bitter final days, Democrats and Republicans could barely stand the sight of each other: When they weren’t shunning, they were screaming.

But today the Senate chamber feels like a particularly chummy neighborhood bar. I know it has become acceptable for men to show affection in public, but these guys are ridiculous. At one moment, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., is racing across the aisle to hug a Democratic friend. A minute later, he is greeting new Sen. Blanche Lambert Lincoln, D-Ark., with a two handed shake followed by an elbow grab. The shake-and-elbow-grab is a popular maneuver. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., perform it on each other. Rookie Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., practices it on his new colleagues. A few senators hail acquaintances with a little neck grab, others clasp the shoulder, the most graceful senators shake hands, then follow up with a fond pat in the small of the back. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., affectionately rubs the knee of a seated Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis. Warm friendships may not guarantee political cooperation, but they certainly improve on the House’s oaths and imprecations.

Everyone in the Senate has promised that its proceedings will have all the solemnity that the House’s didn’t, and if today is any indication, they meant what they said. The solemnity is made easier by the fact that today is all ritual: the presentation of the articles and the swearing of the oath. Senate President Pro Tempore Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., gavels the Senate to order at 9:46 a.m. (A brief complaint: Thurmond doesn’t actually “gavel.” He pounds a big marble ball on the dais. During the House impeachment, too, the presiding officer used the butt end of the gavel rather than its head. Is there no sense of grandeur anymore?)

Thurmond’s call to order is followed by a severe warning: We are all commanded–including senators, I think–to be silent, “on pain of imprisonment,” during the presentation of the articles of impeachment. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., and the dozen other house managers line up in the well of the Senate to make their presentation. The managers clasp their hands in front of them and stand stone-silent as Hyde reads the articles to the Senate. The senators sit, grave and still. (Both Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., whisper hello to their seatmates. They are not imprisoned. Sen. Ted Kennedy coughs repeatedly and squeaks his chair as Hyde talks. It’s not clear whether Kennedy is trying to rattle Hyde or if he’s just antsy.)

The Senate recesses as soon as Hyde finishes. When the session resumes in the afternoon, the mood is, if anything, even more solemn. The galleries, which had been nearly empty in the morning, are now packed. As Chief Justice William Rehnquist is ushered in by an honor guard of six senators, legislators and the galleries rise to their feet. (Those in the press gallery, for reasons that escape me, stay seated when the chief justice enters. This seems disrespectful.)

Thurmond administers an oath to Rehnquist at about 1:20 p.m. (Because of Senate dilly-dallying, this is about 20 minutes later than scheduled, a delay that must have irked the famously punctual chief justice.) Rehnquist replaces Thurmond in the president’s chair. Then he administers the oath to the 100 senators. It is awesome: The top officer of the judicial branch swearing in the top officers of the legislative branch so that they can decide the fate of the top officer of the executive branch. The 100 senators stand and swear to do “impartial justice” with raised right hands and a unanimous “I do.”

What follows is, for me, the most moving part of the day. The clerk slowly calls the roll. As each senator’s name is called, he or she stands again, raises the right arm again, and repeats, “I do.” Then each senator walks to the well of the chamber and signs the “oath book.” A few senators such as Thurmond and Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., shout their “I do.” Some such as Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., almost whisper it. Several senators, all eager young Republicans such as Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas, leap to their feet at the sound of their name and thrust their hand in the air as if they were trying to catch the teacher’s attention. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., rolls back and forth on the balls of his feet as he waits for his name. The beeper of Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., sounds just before his name is called, briefly shattering the chamber’s silence. Sens. Max Cleland, D-Ga., and Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, who lost their right arms in battle, each takes the oath with his left hand.

As the “I do’s” roll on and on, it begins to feel less like the start of a trial than the start of a marriage–a terrible, terrible marriage. “I do,” “I do,” “I do”–a 100 person mass wedding. Senators are entering a relationship that they know already they will come to regret, a relationship that will last longer than they ever imagined, a relationship that cannot end in divorce and cannot be annulled.

When the Senate adjourns after the oath, the good cheer and comity seem to melt away. Assistant Majority Leader Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., holds forth to reporters in the corridor outside the chamber. According to Nickles, Democrats are refusing to attend a planned bipartisan caucus to settle the trial’s procedures. Nickles says that Democrats and Republicans had been on the verge of striking a deal to settle the standoff over witnesses: The arguments would start next Thursday. Managers and the White House would each get a week to present their case, then the Senate would vote on whether witnesses should be allowed. But now Democrats seem to be hesitating.

Nickles and his Republican colleagues, of course, hold the majority, and they can impose these rules on the Democrats if they want to. That may well happen, and it would be a bad way for the trial to get started. Still I am optimistic, perhaps foolishly, that the senators will cooperate as the House didn’t. There were so many shakes and elbow grabs.

Front Porch art from RTV/Reuters.