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Jewish World Review / Oct. 16, 1998 /26 Tishrei, 5759

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg Profile in courage

THESE ARE TIMES, like many others, when politician has become a term of opprobrium -- not unlike lawyer or, yes, journalist. Power corrupts. whatever its form, and no one should expect to come away from exercising it with clean hands.

But these are also times when some politicians rise to the occasion. At such moments -- call them moments of truth, as they do in the bullring -- there is no longer any avoiding responsibility, decision, action. The vote in the House to proceed with an investigation of the president was such a moment, and there will be others as this solemn inquest and grand comedy called impeachment proceeds.

Yes, it'll be a grand comedy, too, for this is an American show with something for everybody. For example: Barney Frank, Massachusetts' gift to the gods of humor, is never so funny as when he's trying to be serious. Then he sounds just partisan. And loud. One can always tell those who have the weakest case in this melodrama; they're the ones with the loudest voices. The Henry Hydes and Asa Hutchinsons don't have to raise theirs.

There will be moments of high drama and dedication in this pageant, too. Consider the brief address of Barney Frank's fellow Democrat, Paul McHale, who was scarcely known outside Pennsylvania before impeachment became the order of the day. He's known now. Because he rose above the party line when he spoke out for a full, unflinching inquiry into this president's conduct.

Paul McHale was eloquent not only because of what he said but because of who he is: The kind of loyal Democrat who worked for Bill Clinton's election and re-election as president, and consistently supported the president's program.

Congressman McHale even began his address and indictment by quoting the first New Democrat, the father of the New Deal: "Mr. Speaker, Franklin Roosevelt once said that the presidency is pre-eminently a place of moral leadership .... '' When a fellow starts a speech with those words, you know he's for impeachment. Any defender of the president who would talk about moral leadership would be indulging in parody.

Paul McHale is no Republican right-winger, no reflexive clintonphobe, but one more guy who was facing his moment of truth after having given William Jefferson Clinton a final chance once too often. This congressman's politics are not noticeably different from many of those whose moment of truth is still to come. They may still be looking for some way to spare the president the consequences of his actions. But as for Paul McHale, he can no longer square his convictions with his party's line.

The gentleman from Pennsylvania explained where he was coming from, and it was solid Democratic territory: "I want my strong criticism of President Clinton to be placed in context. I voted for President Clinton in 1992 and 1996. I believed him to be The Man From Hope, as he was depicted in his 1992 campaign video. I have voted for more than three-fourths of the president's legislative agenda and would do so again. My blunt criticism of the president has nothing to do with policy. Moreover, the president has always treated me with courtesy and respect, and he has been more than responsive to the concerns of my constituents.''

There's no doubting Paul McHale's party credentials. But his conscience belongs to no party. And he followed his conscience on this vote-and upheld his oath to the Constitution by voting for a full, untrammeled inquiry.

There is something awful, in the old sense of awe-inspiring, about the sight of the great wheels of justice beginning to turn, however slowly and tortuously. One fears for the president, and is bound to pray for him, but he's not the only one on trial here. We all are. What happens to William Jefferson Clinton is less important than what his fate will say about where the country is, and where it's heading. Paul McHale understood that, for he ended his brief address to the House with this observation: ``We cannot define the president's character. But we must define our nation's.''

Congressman McHale already has been tarred by the White House muck machine, but that was to be expected. Geraldo Rivera, whose lack of judgment is notable even for a talk-show host, had to issue a semi-apology for passing along the smear. That's how this White House operates. It doesn't matter. The Paul McHales aren't going to be intimidated. Nor will they be dissuaded from their duty as they see it. Let it be noted that 30 other Democrats joined Congressman McHale in voting for an unhindered inquiry. That number included Indiana's respected Lee Hamilton, the universally admired dean of the House.

One need not agree with these 31 Democrats to recognize that they put their duty before party, and to respect them for it. Indeed, almost every Democrat in the House voted to authorize some sort of inquiry, even of a limited kind. Just as did many Republicans a quarter of a century ago when the House was considering the impeachment of a Republican president named Richard Nixon.

The conventional, nose-counting wisdom, even before the evidence has been fully examined, is that Bill Clinton may be impeached in the House but he'll never be convicted in the Senate, where a two-thirds' vote would be required to remove him from office. Besides, why should even Republican senators vote to oust this president? Bill Clinton is the best thing the GOP has going for it just now.

But that purely political judgment doesn't take into account somebody like Paul McHale. He may be leaving Congress to attend to important business -- his family -- but I've got to believe there are a lot of Paul McHales out there, Democrats and Republicans, who are simply going to follow the evidence wherever it leads. There may be more of them, in the House and the Senate, than the conventional wisdom dreams.

Consider the words of Robert Byrd, the very senior senator from West Virginia. To call him a Democrat of the old school would be a colossal understatement; Senator Byrd is almost a caricature of the old, stumpwarming breed. And he has already warned the White House not to tamper with the jury called the Senate of the United States. The conventional wisdom may have overlooked that most unconventional of political phenomena: principle.

Not to mention pride. Each house of Congress has its own history, its own traditions, its own code, and, when the test of principle comes, its own reputation to uphold. We have seen only the first moment of truth.

Whatever the cynics say, there is still honor in politics, in Congress, and in the Democratic Party. Just look at the roll call. And especially those 31 votes cast by Paul McHale and his fellow Democrats of conscience.


10/14/98: A new voice out of Arkansas
10/09/98: Gerald Ford, Mr. Fix-It?
10/07/98: Impeachment Journal: Dept. of Doublespeak
10/01/98: The new tradition
9/25/98: Mr. President, PLEASE don't resign
9/23/98: The demolition of meaning
9/18/98: So help us G-d; The nature of the crisis
9/17/98: First impressions: on reading the Starr Report
9/15/98: George Wallace: All the South in one man
9/10/98: Here comes the judge
9/07/98: Toward impeachment
9/03/98: The politics of impeachment
9/01/98: The eagle can still soar
8/28/98: Boris Yeltsin's mind: a riddle pickled in an enigma
8/26/98: Clinton agonistes, or: Twisting in the wind
8/25/98: The rise of the English murder
8/24/98: Confess and attack: Slick comes semi-clean
8/19/98: Little Rock perspectives
8/14/98: Department of deja vu
8/12/98: The French would understand
8/10/98: A fable: The Rat in the Corner
8/07/98: Welcome to the roaring 90s
8/06/98: No surprises dept. -- promotion denied
8/03/98: Quotes of and for the week: take your pick
7/29/98: A subpoena for the president:
so what else is new?
7/27/98: Forget about Bubba, it's time to investigate Reno
7/23/98: Ghosts on the roof, 1998
7/21/98: The new elegance
7/16/98: In defense of manners
7/13/98: Another day, another delay: what's missing from the scandal news
7/9/98:The language-wars continue
7/7/98:The new Detente
7/2/98: Bubba in Beijing: history does occur twice
6/30/98: Hurry back, Mr. President -- to freedom
6/24/98: When Clinton follows Quayle's lead
6/22/98: Independence Day, 2002
6/18/98: Adventures in poli-speke

©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate