The benefits of a Senate trial

January 07, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Dominating the discussions among Senate leaders about the shape and scope of the Senate impeachment trial of President Clinton is concern that it will be an ordeal so damaging to the conduct of other public business that the nation's best interests will be served if it is short and sweet.

Whatever the length, it will certainly not be sweet, and whether making it short will satisfy the legitimate demands of justice and history is debatable. The failure of the House in arriving at its two articles of impeachment without calling a single witness other than the de facto prosecutor in the case, independent counsel Kenneth Starr, has already generated much criticism.

In the haste to get the Clinton scandal behind Congress and the country, there is the danger of institutional damage in terms of any future presidential impeachment and trial. More than once, in recent history, the process has been short-circuited, for reasons well-intentioned at the time, with cause for some later regret.

In 1973, a near-certain impeachment of Vice President Spiro Agnew was avoided by Justice Department negotiations and plea-bargaining that led Agnew, facing multiple charges of accepting payoffs as Baltimore County Executive, governor of Maryland and vice president, to resign.

Agnew on the recommendation of then Attorney General Elliot Richardson was permitted to plead no contest to an ancillary charge of tax evasion, with a suspended jail sentence in exchange for his resignation.

The deal was struck to clear the line of presidential succession at a time the shadow of impeachment was also threatening to engulf then-President Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal and cover-up. The last thing Mr. Richardson wanted was to have Agnew under a cloud hang on and possibly succeed an impeached Nixon. Also, it was thought at the time that the disgrace of having to resign would be punishment enough for the deposed vice president.

But although Agnew in court accepted the judge's admonition that his plea was "an admission by you that the Department of Justice is possessed of sufficient evidence to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt," that did not stop him from later contending that he had been railroaded. Had impeachment and trial gone forward, that deception would have been demolished and Agnew almost certainly would have been removed from office in the end anyway.

Less than a year later, the process of impeachment and trial was again short-circuited when Nixon, after the House Judiciary Committee had voted three articles against him, also resigned, advised by ranking Senate Republicans that he did not have the votes to beat conviction. Nixon did not as pointedly as Agnew suggest he had been railroaded, allowing himself only that "mistakes were made." But many of his defenders continued to express the view that he had been unjustly treated, absent a Senate trial that would have obliterated that contention.

Considering how Mr. Clinton has adamantly declined to say he committed perjury or obstruction of justice, the severe short-circuiting of a Senate trial would similarly run the risk of encouraging continued denials long after he leaves office.

As for the damage that would be inflicted on the country by letting a trial run its course, Mr. Clinton has already emphatically demonstrated his ability to pursue his presidential agenda, either as a smoke screen to fog the impeachment unpleasantness or in a genuine effort to deal with the nation's pressing business.

If he delivers his annual State of the Union message on Jan. 19 as scheduled, he will put on national display once again his remarkable ability to rise above personal shame and humiliation.

Meanwhile, history has shown that the country is not so fragile that it can't endure "long national nightmares" caused by the reckless personal behavior of errant political leaders.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 1/07/99

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