Private deliberations will lead to public shame

January 27, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Politicians who get themselves elected to the Senate often begin to take themselves pretty seriously. There are, after all, only 100 of them, so it's easy to get puffed up with self-importance.

But this Senate's decision to conduct talks concerning President Clinton's impeachment trial behind closed doors shows how out of touch its members are with the real world. The political insularity of the Republicans -- they were the ones who made the decision -- boggles the mind.

They reason that Senate rules and precedent require the sessions to be held in secret. But the rules could be rewritten in a minute, and the precedent dates from the only other presidential impeachment trial, which occurred 130 years ago.

The theory is the senators are the equivalent of jurors in a criminal trial and thus should be accorded the same privilege of privacy traditionally given juries. But that, too, is patent nonsense. No one imagines that this case is the same as some trial in a criminal court or the senators are no different from ordinary jurors.

Closed sessions of the Senate are obviously justified when national security issues are being discussed. But in this case, all the closing of the doors accomplishes is the reinforcement of the picture of Washington politicians isolated from their constituents.

There may not be a huge outcry about the Senate secrecy. Most voters apparently aren't very interested anyway and probably wouldn't bother to watch if the deliberations were televised. The ratings for the trial so far have been lousy.

And heaven knows precious little sympathy exists for the newspaper and television reporters and photographers complaining about being shut out of the chamber. The press may be even less popular than the politicians. It's at least a close call.

But those Americans who do want to see and hear the members of the Senate are entitled to do so. The word "historic" may have been overworked in the past few weeks, but it is still the word that applies.

The Senate's secrecy extends beyond the closing of the doors and the removal of the reporters and cameras. There is a transcript of their deliberations being made, but it will not be publicly released for reporting by the press and study by the historians. And the rules say any member who talks about what happened in the room is subject to expulsion.

What that means, of course, is that the press must try to reconstruct accounts of the debate from senators' background comments or from Senate staff members who get accounts from their bosses and pass them on. But there's the danger that a distorted picture of the debate will emerge.

And what kind of a record can historians write about this extraordinary case? Are they going to have to rely on private diaries and latter-day recollections of senators? In an age when anything can be recorded in detail and transmitted around the world in seconds, the notion of the Senate meeting secretly and failing to disclose its discussion is laughable.

No one imagines that closing the proceedings is likely to affect the outcome. From the outset, it has been clear that there is little if any chance of the Republicans putting together the 67 votes needed to convict the president.

The votes, at least, will be publicly recorded even if we are not able to hear the arguments that were made in support of them in these closed sessions.

The bottom line is that Mr. Clinton will emerge from the whole exercise not only with his hold on the presidency intact, but also with those Republicans who tried to drive him from office clearly on the defensive.

If they were politically smart, those Republicans would want to conduct the debate on television so they can explain their thinking to the folks back home.

But if they were politically smart, they wouldn't have gotten themselves into this fix.

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

Pub Date: 1/27/99

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