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America After the Trial

President Clinton's senate acquittal on charges of perjury and obstruction-of-justice leaves a trail of emotions in its wake. The most prevalent is doubtless relief that the whole affair is over - plus widespread public introspection about political behavior and national goals.

Clearly this is one of those times in the history of the republic when healing of political fractures is needed.

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Historians and politicians will long study this trial. Some wonder about its effects on the presidency, Congress, and the political system.

Many Republican and Democratic activists remain sharply divided. Still, Mr. Clinton and Hill Republicans should be able to work together as well as any lame-duck president and a Congress led by the other party. Mr. Clinton set the right tone in his statement following the vote. Now actions must match words.

Clinton diminished his presidency by his adultery and lies, but the blot should not harm succeeding presidencies. Also, if Congress racks up solid accomplishments in the next two years, it can return to the public's good graces. But if Republicans are to save their House majority, they'll have to generate those accomplishments.

It's worth recalling how the nation got to this point. Just as World War II was a direct result of World War I, so President Clinton's impeachment trial grew out of the system created to prevent another Watergate scandal.

The Democratic Congress in 1974 crafted a law creating an independent counsel to investigate potential crimes by the president, vice president, and Cabinet officials. The statute requires the independent counsel to send the House of Representatives any evidence he discovers of impeachable offenses. That's what Kenneth Starr did.

That law is set to expire June 30. The common view in Washington is that it will not be renewed because both parties feel victimized by it and Congress won't be able to agree on a fix. Its demise could be the trial's clearest aftereffect.

Bill Clinton - not Mr. Starr, not the House Judiciary Committee, not the Senate - caused the anguish of the past year by his reckless behavior. The matter quickly took on a partisan tone, partly because of White House attacks on both Starr and the committee. Also because congressional Democrats made a political decision to block investigation, and GOP tactical mistakes fed public impatience.

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Unlike the 1868 impeachment of Andrew Johnson, this was not a policy dispute. Clinton stood accused of criminal offenses. Many observers believed he had perjured and obstructed. For them, the debate turned on whether these were "high crimes" meriting removal.

The Senate, trying to avoid the partisan bickering that wracked the House, shaped a trial that the prosecutors said made it difficult to present their case. Further curbing the drama was the widespread belief from the outset that the Senate would never muster the two-thirds vote to convict.

In the end, half the senators concluded either that the House hadn't proved its case or that, even if the president were guilty, the particular circumstances didn't justify removing him from office. Polls say most Americans agreed with the last point, despite their poll-reported distrust of the president's morals and honesty.

Thus ended an imperfect process. To be fair, there are few precedents for handling an impeachment trial, this having been only the second in history. But clearly some lessons can be learned. For one: To reduce partisanship, there should be no party caucuses during a trial; any meetings should include all senators.

Such comment aside, the Senate did the best it could, given political realities. Most senators took their jobs seriously and considered the evidence carefully. Majority leader Trent Lott and his Democratic counterpart, Tom Daschle, deserve plaudits for leadership in a difficult situation.

In the end the Constitution won. Politicians in Washington and ordinary Americans have had to think through what the Founding Fathers meant when they set up the separation of powers and the impeachment clause. The framers made it very hard to remove a president, and rightly so.

Americans have demonstrated time and again that they want Democrats and Republicans to cooperate. Now it is time for healing and for getting on with the nation's business.

What Washington could most use, at this time of increased interest in spiritual matters in America, are the qualities Jesus set forth in his Sermon on the Mount: humility, repentance, patience, spirituality, compassion, morality, peacemaking, self-restraint.

These are values around which Americans of every party and faction can unite. They are values that demand more than lip service from the nation's leaders.

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