How to punish Clinton

December 29, 1998|By James Warren

WASHINGTON -- When Gerald Ford was quickly mulling how to be sworn in as president to replace a disgraced Richard Nixon, he dismissed Nixon's suggestion of doing it in the Oval Office.

Mr. Ford opted, instead, for the East Room of the White House. For starters, it allowed him to have many more people there and, as important, drew a distinction between the old regime and the new one.

It was, as a Ford friend put it last week, "the theater of politics."

As one considers how the country will conclude President Clinton's impeachment mess, it might be worth considering theater, in particular images and timing.

Then, consider the possibility that a fitting end might reflect the skills of a Broadway or Hollywood director, not just some Solon of the Senate (tradition-obsessed West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd) or a muddled-thinking op/ed writer (Bob Dole, who recently unveiled his own tortuous alternative).

We live in a visual world and, even with the past year's obsession with the words at the heart of Mr. Clinton's legal travail, images count. We crave and dwell on pictures.

Thus, it could be a picture of Mr. Clinton accepting punishment that is the lasting image for a generation of Americans -- and a way out that's both cathartic and reverent, possibly the first real moment of majesty in a squalid year starring Mr. Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, Linda Tripp and all the others.

Rest assured that there will be a trial of Mr. Clinton in the Senate, with Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist presiding over the first trial of his life. (That's right, he was never a trial judge).

Clinton haters

It has to do partly with the fact that some members of both parties are determined that there be a trial, even if they don't want, or foresee, Mr. Clinton's removal. And it has partly to do with senators who just don't like Mr. Clinton.

But it also has to do with members concerned about the purity of the system. A trial is a safe and secure, purist's application of the constitutional remedy. And while many of us may view most politicians as craven and self-obsessed, there are those, especially in the Senate, whose admiration for the institution verges on awe and who will fight to protect it from the vagaries of modernity.

Mr. Byrd leads that pack, to a mix of admiration and chagrin from the colleagues whose feet he puts to the constitutional fire whenever chance he gets. Just ask Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat who is said to be the frequent, involuntary audience for Byrd lectures on maintaining Senate rules in the wake of the Lewinsky scandal.

So a trial will proceed and will surely be avidly watched, even by a nation claiming that it is bored by the saga or which just sees Mr. Clinton as a player in a partisan struggle.

But it is far from sure what the ending will be, though a finale with historic flavor could be scripted by the Senate.

The Senate, with a few more adults than the House, presumably will not vote to remove Mr. Clinton. And it's not dead certain that it would conclude a trial with a vote of guilty or not guilty. One further possibility is what's known as a vote to "lay aside," or basically ditch the whole matter, after a trial in which there is no way, shape or form to corral the needed 67 votes to send Mr. Clinton packing.

But such a vote could be part and parcel of a sensitively crafted, behind-closed-door resolution of the matter.

Under the scenario I hereby offer free of charge, one would go through the trial, take the guilty/not guilty vote, or one to lay aside, and then have in hand a resolution of condemnation, not censure.

Censure is a crock, a namby-pamby alternative that, as has been duly noted, could be overturned by a Democratic Congress somewhere down the road. So you go with the condemnation.

A president does not have to show up for an impeachment trial. But Mr. Clinton might and, if the vote somehow seems close, make a statement of some sort before the vote. If it doesn't seem close, he shuts up.

The Senate exonerates him but then votes the condemnation resolution. At this point, it huddles with House leaders and sees that they agree to present the same resolution to their 435 members. The fix would then be in for them to vote for a motion that in no way dilutes Saturday's impeachment vote.

You know the Un-Cola? Well, it would now be time for a sort of Un-State of the Union gathering, where Mr. Clinton would make a pilgrimage to Capitol Hill for a joint gathering, just like the one he addresses each January.

Soon after the House vote on the condemnation, Mr. Clinton would be in the well of the House, or perhaps the speaker's chair, where he is each January. The resolution would be read aloud by the speaker.

The speaker would then introduce Mr. Clinton, who would say something short and sweet. It would be more contrite than what he's done before but not one of those lip-biting, Clintonian justifications or descents into self-pity or victimization.

Indeed, the text might have been drafted with the approval of a bipartisan group of congressmen whose ultimate aim would be to stick it to the president but not humiliate him.

But let's not spend inordinate time considering the words. They won't be key.

A Kodak moment

Instead, there is the image, the picture, of Mr. Clinton accepting the resolution of condemnation. Little he could say would not be greeted with suspicion. That's just the way it is, no matter what you think the meaning of "is" is.

It will be a first in U.S. history, namely a president called before Congress for his comeuppance. The purpose here is not to be gratuitous. It is, rather, to offer a sense of closure and maintain the dignity of the Congress.

It might even be a truly elevating event for the nation. A time to come together.

And if televised and staged with just the right solemnity, it will at least raise the prospect of catharsis.

James Warren is Washington bureau chief of the Chicago Tribune.

Pub Date: 12/29/98

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