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Jewish World Review / Dec. 31, 1998 /12 Teves, 5759

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg The Senate will
be on trial, too

(JWR) --- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com) THERE WAS A TIME when the United States Senate was seriously described as the greatest deliberative body in the world. Now it is called upon to act like it. All those grand old platitudes that senators are known to utter on ceremonial occasions -- all those words about courage and judgment and, yes, about truth and duty and the rule of law -- suddenly apply. A president of the United States has been impeached, and now his trial becomes a clear and ever more present necessity. Senators might actually be called on to act on their principles. How awkward.

A trial of the president? Unthinkable. What rules of evidence will be adopted? Which witnesses will be called? Where will we put the chief justice, the prosecutors, the defense? Surely some kind of face-saving deal can be worked out.

There is no shortage of ways out. If a trial must be held -- alas, the Constitution does seem to insist on it -- then open and shut the proceedings the same day. Work out some sort of vague censure so we can all Move On. The pundits and pols are talking up all kinds of painless arrangements, the sort that would meet every requirement but justice.

Gerald Ford has already proposed his plan, and he knows how these things are done. He's the president who pardoned Richard Nixon. His idea of closure is to evade all those worrisome ethical and moral questions. They only divide people. Jimmy Carter agreed, and now both have been joined by Bob Dole, who's diagrammed the necessary parliamentary procedure step by step by step -- like an escape route.

Bob Dole's idea of statesmanship has always had a wonderfully assuring mechanical sound to it, like the plans for a sewer plant. His exit strategy, as they say at the Pentagon, is guaranteed to solve every procedural problem without addressing any troubling philosophical ones. His way out is, in short, pure Bob Dole-ism: all process, no spirit. Much like his presidential campaign. Remember how, as that campaign ended with a whimper, he was reduced to wondering where the outrage had gone. Now he's the one who proposes to dodge the troubling questions.

As the days go by and all kinds of palliatives are prescribed, each one seems to lack something: moral substance. And it may begin to dawn on our senators that some things, like the spirit of the Constitution, will brook no compromise. It may even dawn on them that trying to evade its spirit will not Put This Behind Us, but only deny the country the kind of clear, definitive resolution that is the purpose of a trial.

Lost in all the easy ways out is the simple call to duty. But one begins to hear it far off. Senators begin to bridle at all the ex-senators and ex-presidents and expansive pundits who know just how the senators should do their duty, or rather how they can find a way around it.

The favorite out is still called censure. (It would be all too candid to call it a plea bargain.) The House didn't buy a resolution of censure as a substitute for impeachment, so now its wording, which was already damning, is to be beefed up in hopes the Senate will accept some words in lieu of a real trial.

The theory is that the worse a resolution of censure sounds, the more acceptable it will prove, and the quicker and easier the president can be let off. The whole process says a lot about how seriously senators and the rest of us are supposed to take words these days, namely, not at all.

Consider that it was the president's defenders in the House of Representatives who in their resolution spoke of the oath William Jefferson Clinton has taken to faithfully execute the laws, and the moral responsibility that oath entails. Their conclusion: This president ``egregiously failed in this obligation, and through his actions violated the trust of the American people, lessened their esteem for the office of President, and dishonored the office which they have entrusted to him.''

Whereupon, immediately after this same president was impeached, busloads of these same defenders arrived on the White House lawn. They were there to lend this president who has dishonored his office their fervent support. And they heard the vice president describe this same William Jefferson Clinton, the one who has violated the people's trust, as ``one of our greatest presidents.'' Well, which is it?

Answer: Once you've been trained in the orwellian art of doublethink, it becomes clear that Bill Clinton is both -- a bum and the greatest -- depending on whichever description serves his current political interest. In clintonspeak, words have no meaning of their own apart from their political purpose at the moment, whether it is to win an election, escape disgrace or just serve out a term.

This president's legacy doubtless will prove equally fluid once the right, politic words are found to express it. After all, the walls of presidential libraries will put up with anything engraved on them. So long as he can hold onto the presidency, nothing will have been lost save honor. A small matter in his case.

Instead of trying this impeached president, the Senate is supposed to fabricate some solemn phrases that will make this scandal go away. Robert Byrd and Daniel Patrick Moynihan are said to be crafting an acceptable resolution of censure even now. But they cannot minimize what Bill Clinton has done without minimizing themselves -- and the United States Senate. That's the worst thing about clintonspeak: It's not limited to Bill Clinton. It's infectious. It smudges everything it touches and everyone who uses it. Demean words, and all else is demeaned.

None of this has yet dawned on the blithe fixers of American politics. They see in a presidential trial only the discomfit, the risk, the hardship, the complications -- not the conclusion, the resolution that a verdict would represent. They are so caught up with arguing procedures that they are impervious to what a trial could finally bring: an end to all this that would be an end, not just another round in this never-ending squabble.

Those trying to avoid a trial may not see what is implacably at work here: the majesty of the law. They may shrink from the grinding sounds of the mechanism and forget its very purpose: justice. They may think some jerry-built compromise will dispel doubt, unaware that vague, unsatisfying words will only prolong it.


12/29/98:A look down the avenue
12/22/98: The surreal impeachment
12/17/98: Another moment of truth approaches
12/15/98: The President's defenders: witnesses for the prosecution
12/10/98:The latest miracle cure: CensurePlus
12/03/98: Sentences at an airport Sentences at an airport
12/03/98: Games lawyers play
12/01/98: Ms. Magoo strikes again, or: Janet Reno and the law
11/26/98: The most American holiday
11/23/98: Same game, another round
11/18/98: Guide to the perplexed
11/09/98: A vote for apathy
11/03/98: Global village goes Clintonesque
11/02/98: Farewell to all that
10/30/98: New budget, same swollen government
10/26/98: Of life on the old plantation -- and death in the Middle East
10/22/98: Starr Wars (CONT'D)
10/19/98:Another retreat: weakness invites aggression
10/16/98: Profile in courage
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