Free at last

Trent Lott's concession to Tom Daschle on witnesses was the moment that mattered in the impeachment trial.

Published February 13, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

It was a fitting end: A 50-50 vote on the obstruction of justice charge against President Clinton, the article of impeachment considered most serious by the Senate. Split down the middle, the impeachment trial ended not so much with exultation for the winners, or dejection for the losers, but with a feeling of exhaustion, stalemate and relief on both sides.

The relative lack of rancor at the trial's end was surprising given the partisan bickering that broke out midway through. At numerous points the trial had seemed ready to skid off the rails into the vexed free-for-all that gripped the House last year. "I was surprised it only took six weeks," one Democratic staffer conceded. "Around here that's a relatively rapid turnaround."

It wasn't clear at the time, but the crucial moment in the trial came two weeks ago, when the Senate voted to allow the House managers to hold videotaped depositions of three witnesses -- Monica Lewinsky, Vernon Jordan and Sidney Blumenthal. At the same time, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott gave Minority Leader Tom Daschle veto power over further witnesses. It was one of the main reasons Democratic criticism remained relatively muted, even after the Republicans moved ahead with witnesses on a straight party-line vote. "Lott showed from Day One that he understood that every day this was in the Senate was a bad day," said the same Democratic staffer. "There's a fair level of respect for the way Lott handled things."

"There's just relief that it's over," an aide to one conservative senator told Salon. "There's a feeling that everyone did what they thought was right."

The final voting came off more or less as everyone had expected. The perjury count went down to defeat, 55-45 against. Soon after that, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced a motion to censure the president. But as expected, it was defeated by a procedural motion introduced by Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas -- and thus the much-talked-about censure option was set aside indefinitely, and probably forever.

When the House managers appeared for a joint press conference just after the president's acquittal, even most of them seemed disinclined to bring out the big guns. For the managers the theme of the day was their contention that they had gained a moral victory by convincing what they called "a vast majority of the American people" that the president had in fact committed the perjury and obstruction, even if they didn't want him removed from office.

As they had throughout the trial, the 13 managers continued to disparage the importance of polls in deciding the president's fate. And in questions after the press conference, Henry Hyde signaled that he may still be in denial about the public's sustained and overwhelming rejection of the managers' central claims. When one reporter asked Hyde what role public opinion should have played in deciding the president's fate, Hyde responded, "Polls are not an accurate reflection of opinion ... It depends how you ask the questions and where you ask ... in the city or out on the farm, in New York or in Pocatello, Idaho." Apparently Hyde still hasn't heard of statistical sampling, which lets polls correct for demographic biases.

A few hours after his acquittal the president stepped out into the Rose Garden and made a brief statement, telling the American people "how profoundly sorry I am for what I said and did to trigger these events, and the great burden they have imposed on the Congress and the American people." A similarly contrite and gracious statement after his grand jury testimony last Aug. 17 might have prevented the impeachment drama from ever getting this far.

The day drifted to a conclusion with notes of reconciliation on both sides and calls to get back to the nation's business. But there was an undertone of unreality and uncertain expectation running throughout the day. What no one quite wants to admit, and some may not yet fully realize, is that many in the capital don't know what to do now. We have gone so long with the high-octane politics of impeachment that it's hard to go back to the workaday politics that normally is the life of official Washington.

Without the ever-present threat that a president could be removed from office or forced to resign, politics just don't have quite the same verve. What will network anchors have to wax eloquent and sonorous about? Who will dote on the moderate Republicans who no one had even heard of before the impeachment trial made them something close to household names? And who will tune in to listen to what newfound celebrity journalists write or say about Clinton's fate?

In the House managers' mid-afternoon press conference, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham told reporters that whatever one's personal feelings about President Clinton, the Senate's verdict had brought the matter to an end and left the president "cleansed." We can only hope the rest of us are so lucky.

By Joshua Micah Marshall

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

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Bill Clinton