Senators exercise best behavior

Trial rules forbid them from talking

January 15, 1999|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- They're jurors. They're judges. But as they heard opening statements in the presidential impeachment trial yesterday, the members of the Senate seemed more like students. An exceedingly well-behaved class of students.

Everyone was in attendance as the trial began in earnest. Planted dutifully at their polished wooden desks, the 91 men and nine women who must determine President Clinton's fate listened intently to the Republican House managers and peered carefully at TV screens as clips of Clinton's testimony were shown.

Impeachment's peculiar rules generally forbid senators from speaking during the trial. Said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat: "That may be the most cruel and unusual punishment to exact on a senator, to ask him to sit in silence for a lengthy period of time."

But a few minutes after one o'clock, a cone of silence effectively descended over the normally buzzing Senate floor. Aware that they, as much as Clinton, are on trial now, the senators carefully adhered to the gag rule, with one exception.

"Turn it up," barked Sen. Ted Stevens, a senior Republican from Alaska, when the Clinton video began to appear on the two jumbo TV monitors that have been placed on the Senate floor.

As images were played, and replayed, of what Republican manager James E. Rogan of California called Clinton's "perjurious legal hairsplitting," pained expressions filled the faces of many senators, especially Democrats who are expected to vote to acquit the president.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware heaved a large sigh. Feminist stalwarts such as California's Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and Maryland's Barbara A. Mikulski watched with chilly grimness.

"There's no question the president's videotaped testimony was dreadful," Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut said afterward.

Several Democrats, including Dodd, said they heard nothing new. But for almost six hours, they were forced to listen to the Republican managers describe Clinton as unworthy of the office to which he was twice elected and characterize his behavior as both demeaning and reprehensible.

Sen. Patty Murray sat glumly, her arms folded, as Republicans hammered away at Clinton's grand jury testimony last August, including his claim that his relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky "began as a friendship" and only later came to include "inappropriate conduct."

When Republican manager Ed Bryant of Tennessee pointed out that Clinton and Lewinsky had oral sex on the day they met (Bryant actually described it as a "salacious encounter," in deference to the decorum of the Senate), Republican Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio nodded knowingly.

When Bryant quipped "that dog won't hunt," referring to one of Clinton's claims, fellow Tennessean Fred Thompson, who also likes to use that countrified expression, allowed himself a tiny grin. So did Trent Lott, the Senate majority leader, from neighboring Mississippi.

After a technical glitch prevented the senators from seeing videotape of Clinton taking the oath of office, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts looked bemused, while Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the leading House manager, slowly wagged his head in dismay.

At least one member of the Clinton defense team, Nicole Seligman, registered her disagreement at several points with an angry shake of the head over what the managers were saying.

Just for the trial, matched sets of gracefully curved tables have been placed in the well of the Senate. Arrayed around each are brown leather chairs decorated with brass studs, for the 13 House managers (who oddly enough sit on the Democratic side of the Senate) and the seven White House lawyers (installed on the opposite, or Republican, side of the aisle).

As in a courtroom, the jurors and lawyers rise as Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, in his gold-striped black robe, enters and leaves the chamber. So, too, do spectators in the balconies, only partially filled yesterday.

The rigid formality of the impeachment proceedings clashed with the bonhomie that prevailed on the clubby Senate floor before the session and during two 15-minute "comfort breaks."

At those times, there was considerable laying on of the flesh across battle lines. Republican senators mingled with White House lawyers (96-year-old Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond was deep in conversation with Clinton attorney David Kendall), as Democrats shook hands and grabbed shoulders with Republican House managers.

"That was powerful," Sen. Paul Wellstone, a liberal Democrat from Minnesota, complimented Republican manager Asa Hutchinson during the break that followed the Arkansas congressman's presentation.

While the House managers were presenting their case, senators of both parties scribbled frequent notes into looseleaf binders or on legal pads. So, too, did members of Clinton's legal team, including White House lawyer Charles F. C. Ruff, who wrote on a clipboard on his lap.

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