Solemn vote ends `year of agony'

Then, near-giddiness as Senate adjourns

The Impeachment Verdict

February 13, 1999|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Suspenseful it was not. And yet, when Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist called for the verdict in President Clinton's impeachment trial, he suddenly placed the weight of history on 100 sets of shoulders in the hushed Senate chamber.

"Senators, how say you?" he asked, closely following his 19th-century script. "Is the respondent, William Jefferson Clinton, guilty or not?"

It took just a half-hour for the pageantry of an impeachment judgment, one of the rarest spectacles in American democracy, to play out. When it ended, as expected, with Clinton's acquittal, "this year of agony that the American people have endured," as Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine put it, was finally over.

An overflow crowd of spectators in the Senate balcony peered down, and glum-faced House prosecutors watched in pained resignation, as senators rose, one by one, behind their desks."Guilty," they called out, gravely, as their names were called. Or, more often, "not guilty."

Some, such as Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, spoke in a firm voice, putting special emphasis on the word "not." Others could scarcely be heard.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, whose motion to dismiss the impeachment charges last month was the turning point in the trial, had termed a presidential impeachment verdict "the most heart-wrenching of any vote that any senator will ever be called on to make." When his time came to answer, the 81-year-old Democrat -- who had said last week that he believed Clinton's conduct rose "to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors" -- stood and mumbled "not guilty" in a low voice.

Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican, said "guilty" in a tone that showed no mercy. Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, gave a nod of assent before giving the same response.

Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, the 96-year-old physical wonder who is the oldest member of Congress, sang out "guilty" with vigor. And Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, applied his own spin. "Not proven," he proclaimed, "therefore not guilty."

At 12: 37 p.m., Rehnquist rapped his gavel to silence the spectators' galleries, then announced that the Senate had failed to remove Clinton from office.

He ordered that the news be communicated to the secretary of state, Madeleine K. Albright, in accordance with Senate rules.

The trial had lasted five weeks, but it seemed to take much longer. By the time the final hour arrived, an almost giddy, last-day-of-school atmosphere had taken over.

When the doors to the chamber were thrown open to the public shortly before noon -- after three days of secret deliberations -- senators were already paying their respects informally to the lawyers on both sides -- and to colleagues at the opposite end of the partisan divide.

Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, one of Clinton's strongest defenders, offered a friendly handshake to Rep. Henry J. Hyde, leader of the House prosecution team. Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott got a warm hug from Democratic Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut.

Down at the White House defense table, Thurmond delivered farewell gifts -- Clementine oranges -- to his favorite members of the Clinton team, Nicole Seligman and Cheryl Mills. The president's lead private attorney, David E. Kendall, had to be satisfied with a Thurmond handshake.

At the back of the chamber, in seats reserved for House members, were some of Clinton's staunchest backers, including Reps. Maxine Waters of California, John Lewis of Georgia, Bart Stupak of Michigan, Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas and Diana DeGette of Colorado.

On the Republican side, Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan settled in to watch history being made.

In the visitors' galleries, packed beyond capacity for the first time in the trial, were such trial regulars as Lynda Robb, the wife of Virginia Sen. Charles S. Robb and daughter of Lyndon B. Johnson, and former Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, a Clinton appointee and sister of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and President John F. Kennedy.

Also on the scene were some familiar faces from the all-Monica, all-impeachment cable TV networks, including Abbe Lowell, the chief Democratic counsel to the House Judiciary Committee, and Gilbert Davis, one of the original lawyers for Paula Corbin Jones, the Arkansas woman whose sexual misconduct suit against Clinton helped make the impeachment process possible.

"You like to have closure on something you start," Davis said, by way of explaining his presence in the balcony.

Down on the Senate floor, Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, was scurrying about, gathering autographs from fellow senators on her copy of the articles of impeachment.

A spokesman said Landrieu may not have gotten 99 senatorial signatures, but "she got the chief justice to sign it."

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