Clinton on Trial

The Senate Acquits Itself

The White House may be a “gloat-free zone” today, but the Senate surely isn’t. As soon as senators emerge from the impeachment vote, they start congratulating themselves. Our stalwart legislators line up four deep at the cameras outside the chamber to praise their own wisdom and discretion. It’s almost as if they just were set free rather than the president.

“The Senate really lived up to every expectation,” submits Sen. Charles Schumer. “The speeches were magnificent. We handled it a way we can be proud of,” opines Majority Leader Trent Lott. “The Senate has acquitted itself well,” agrees Sen. Kent Conrad. “The Constitution worked today, and we have come together closer as a body,” offers Sen. Byron Dorgan. “I want to express my personal gratitude to the United States Senate for meeting its responsibility,” says Sen. Robert Torricelli.

The orgy of self-praise is undoubtedly excessive, but it’s a good-natured relief after the solemnity of the vote. When the day begins, the whole Senate seems enveloped in a portentous fog. The chaplain’s opening prayer asks for guidance on “this day of trouble.” Senators seem appropriately somber as they file into the chamber. Sen. Bob Smith, who never wears a suit, is wearing one. Sen. Mary Landrieu is circulating among her colleagues, asking them to autograph a copy of the impeachment articles for posterity.

(Only Sen. Strom Thurmond seems immune to the mood. As soon as he enters the chamber, he walks up behind Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell and yanks his ponytail. When Campbell turns around, Thurmond shouts, “All right! How you doing?”)

Chief Justice William Rehnquist arrives to a packed and buzzing chamber. A half-dozen House members are sitting in the back of the room. Former Paula Jones attorney Gil Davis, who started all this (thanks, Gil), is in the gallery, as are assorted political wives and kids. The clerk reads the perjury article. Rehnquist intones: “Senators, how say ye? Is the respondent guilty or not guilty?” The room is incredibly, spookily quiet.

As their names are called, senators rise, stand behind their desks, and answer. Their body language is extraordinary: Many clutch both sides of their desk, as if their legs are too weak to support them. Others clasp their hands together as if praying. All speak firmly and answer in a much louder voice than they normally use for roll calls. Those who say “guilty” accompany their response with a tight, quick, definitive nod. Sen. Arlen Specter alone interrupts the guilty/not guilty routine. He says, “not proven and therefore not guilty.”

Until the end of the alphabet, the perjury article seems headed to a very close vote. Democrats are sticking together, and the Republican moderates are defecting, as expected. Then conservative Republican Sens. Richard Shelby, Ted Stevens, Fred Thompson, and John Warner join the moderates in voting not guilty. This sends the article to a 45-55 defeat. The vote on the second article follows immediately. It fails in a 50-50 tie.

Rehnquist announces “President William Jefferson Clinton is acquitted,” and the chamber’s tension lifts. Sen. Tom Harkin flashes a thumbs up to someone in the gallery. Manager Bob Barr stops paying attention and buries his head in a newspaper article. Clinton lawyer David Kendall and Republican Whip Don Nickles, ideological enemies, exchange grins. The chamber quickly degenerates into a testimonial dinner: Rehnquist congratulates the Senate for its sober deliberation. Lott congratulates Rehnquist for the “gentle dignity” he brought to the trial. Lott and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle present Rehnquist with a plaque. Everyone applauds. Sen. John Chafee congratulates Lott and Daschle on behalf of the Senate. Everyone applauds again. The managers and chief justice are escorted out. The White House lawyers simply disappear.

The post-trial spinning has barely started when a bomb threat empties the building. Senators, staffers, and reporters spill out into the Capitol parking lot. It is a gorgeous day, unseasonably warm and unreasonably sunny. Senators hold forth genially to the cameras outside: I count a half-dozen “move ons” in five minutes.

Politicians always say sunshine is the best disinfectant, and today they may be right. When the building reopens an hour later, Sen. Phil Gramm blocks Sen. Diane Feinstein’s censure resolution, and the Senate proceeds to regular business. Censure is dead, but no one seems too upset about this. No one, in fact, seems too upset about anything. The managers seem relieved at their press conference. Their bitterness is gone. Clinton’s innocuous statement is greeted with a yawn in the press gallery. By mid-afternoon, and this is the weirdest thing of all, it is already starting to feel as though it never happened.