Frame Game


Clinton’s prosecution used to be about honoring the law. Now it’s about honoring the House.

Several months ago, when House Republicans launched the case for President Clinton’s impeachment, they argued that he had committed high crimes worthy of removal from office. Last week, as it became increasingly obvious that this argument wouldn’t persuade 67 senators to expel Clinton–and might not even persuade 51 senators to let witnesses be called–the House Republicans changed their tune. They began to argue that the Senate should call witnesses and complete the trial not necessarily because Clinton deserved to be removed but because the Senate owed the House a full hearing. This marks a new phase in the trial’s disintegration. The prosecutors’ case is no longer about us. It’s about them.

Sunday on Meet the Press, the chief House prosecutor, Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., dismissed the public’s unshaken approval of President Clinton as “something for an abnormal psychologist to do a dissertation on.” Lauding his “13 intrepid colleagues who have marched into the jaws of death,” Hyde declared, “The Senate owes us a trial.” Several Republican senators agreed that “fairness” required the Senate to let the House managers “make their case” by calling witnesses. On This Week, conservative pundit Bill Kristol protested that by “saying that this trial should be dismissed or saying that the House managers don’t get a chance to present their case” through witnesses, Senate Republicans would “discredit” the House’s impeachment vote and make it appear “illegitimate.”

Continuing this line of argument before the Senate Monday, Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., pleaded, “We haven’t had a chance to present our case, really.” Hyde followed with a blunt rebuke to senators who were proposing to dismiss the case: “I looked at this motion to dismiss, and I was astounded, really. If the Senate had sent something similar to the House, it would certainly have received such treatment as comports with comity. … I looked in the thesaurus about ‘dismiss’ and I came up with ‘disregard,’ ‘ignore,’ ‘brush off.’ … We represent the House, the other body, kind of blue-collar people, and we’re over here trying to survive with our impeachment articles. … Let us finish our job.”

By all accounts, the House managers’ plea for respect has rallied Senate Republicans to their side. For public consumption, the senators have dressed up the respect argument in two guises. One is precedent: “Never in the history of impeachment in the United States Senate has a trial been dismissed.” The other is equality: “If the president’s lawyers needed witnesses, we would surely oblige them. We should do no less for the House managers.”

B ut most Americans don’t care about arcane precedents. They don’t see why Clinton’s lawyers and prosecutors can’t be equally silent rather than equally thorough. They’re not interested in what the House is “owed.” They don’t care whether House Republicans feel “ignored,” “brushed off,” or “discredited.” In most households, the suggestion that members of Congress are “blue-collar people” fighting to “survive” in “the jaws of death” is more likely to elicit contempt and derision than sympathy.

Sensing their isolation, the House prosecutors have turned inward. They have narrowed their appeals first to the Senate, and then, in desperation, to Senate Republicans. Unable to convince even these fellow GOP lawmakers that numerous witnesses must be interrogated and that Clinton must be fully tried for the sake of the nation, the House managers are framing the case in increasingly personal terms. Look what you’re doing to us, they say. We’ve risked our careers to prosecute a popular president. Don’t abandon us. Don’t humiliate us. Don’t repudiate everything we’ve stood for.

It’s a poignant plea. But it’s not the least bit moral. A prosecution provoked by the self-absorbed neediness of an insecure president has degenerated into the self-absorbed neediness of an insecure House. How the GOP managed to replace Clinton on the shrink’s couch is a dissertation topic for students of abnormal psychology to ponder.