Clinton on Trial

A Pecking or a Choking?

The country-club wing of the Republican Party is nearing extinction, but it has left the party at least one worthy bequest: Even now, the GOP remains the party of good manners.

The impeachment trial has proved this beyond doubt, and never more than today. It is all very well for Democrats to vote to acquit, to dispute the managers’ arguments, and to detest their speeches, but that does not excuse rudeness. The least they can do is heed the Senate’s rules, which call for them to be present, silent, and attentive during the trial. I have been informally surveying the chamber every few days, and each time I find all or virtually all Republican senators in their seats and at least two-thirds of them paying attention. At the beginning of the trial, Democrats matched Republicans politesse for politesse. But at midafternoon today, only 31 of the 45 Democrats are in the chamber, and only a dozen of them are even making a pretense of paying attention. Sen. Bob Kerrey is scribbling madly in a notebook; Sens. Chuck Schumer and Russ Feingold are whispering–loudly. Sundry others appear to be napping.

This inattention is rude, though it’s hard not to sympathize. Today–the climax of the trial–turns out to be utterly anticlimactic. The reason the closing arguments are anticlimactic is not that the trial’s outcome is predetermined. (After all, the outcome has been predetermined from Day 1, but the trial has still been compelling.) No, the closing arguments are anticlimactic because the managers and the White House lawyers utterly tank their presentations. Till today, the trial has featured often fabulous and always competent lawyering by both sides. Today’s arguments, however, seem almost willfully incompetent. Senators endure two appalling tortures: They are choked by a boa constrictor, then pecked by sparrows.

The boa constrictor is White House Counsel Chuck Ruff, who delivers two uninterrupted hours for the defense. Ruff, whose microphone troubles make him barely audible, drags the Senate through a 90 minute refutation of the “seven pillars” of the obstruction of justice case. (Never mind that the White House lawyers have already refuted the “pillars” twice before.) Since acquittal is guaranteed, the purpose of the closing arguments has evolved: Each side is jockeying to win the majority. Ruff concentrates on the obstruction charge because the White House figures it has already locked in more than 50 votes against perjury. Ruff’s two-hour choke hold is designed to help win a few more votes against the stronger charge of obstruction.

The House managers decide, mysteriously, that all 13 of them should give closing arguments. This baker’s dozen of speeches stretches over three excruciating hours and is unbelievably disorganized. The managers spend a lot of time congratulating each other on their courage (risking political careers for conscience, etc.). They do much invoking of wives and children and trotting out of “average” Americans: The third-grader who can’t believe the president lied, the student at Mother Mercy High School who believes the president disgraced the office, the Stanleys of Ohio who believe he must be convicted, the Eritrean immigrant in Atlanta who believes the trial proves the strength of American democracy. The managers’ underlying arguments–no man is above the law, perjury is a high crime–occasionally peek through the cant and the chaos.

The pecking presentation, which allows each manager to indulge himself for 10 to 15 minutes, turns them into self-parodies. Awkward Manager Chris Cannon, who’s been absent for most of the trial, spends his 10 minutes speaking so fast and so nervously that I’m not sure anyone understands what he says. Excitable Manager George Gekas outdoes himself with a shouting, hysterical display culminating a Brando-like cry of, “The polls! The polls! The polls!” Down-home Manager Lindsey Graham is folksy to the point of irritation. Feisty Manager James Rogan is even more aggressive than usual. And wise Manager Henry Hyde raids all of Bartlett’s to come up with quotes from Charles de Gaulle, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V, among other citations.

(The only manager who does not seem a self-parody is Bob Barr. He quotes the Eritrean immigrant and Martin Luther King Jr. I bet that’s the last time he gets invited to the Council of Conservative Citizens.)

When the trial finally breaks at 6:30, all my fellow reporters and CNN want to talk about is the Sidney Blumenthal-Christopher Hitchens spat. Some Republicans are seeking a Department of Justice investigation. (See Chatterbox’s voluminous coverage of the Blumenthal-Hitchens story.) Many of my colleagues seem invigorated by the prospect of this. After the opium of the four week trial we all need a little pick-me-up.