Facing the reality of a president in the dock


"Hardly anyone realises it yet," Anthony Lewis, the veteran correspondent and columnist of the New York Times, wrote before President Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives on December 19th, "but this country will now spend the first months of 1999. . . with the President on trial before the Senate." His prediction is now almost a certainty. "For six days a week, under the rules, the 100 senators will be in their seats on the floor," Lewis's scenario continued. "Chief Justice William Rehnquist will preside. Congress, the President and the Supreme Court will be seriously disabled. That is where the right-wing Republicans, who are effectively running the impeachment process in the House, are taking us. Most Americans do not want to go there."

The public had assumed "impeachment was a dead issue", until December 19th, when the House of Representatives voted for the second time in its history to impeach a president, emasculate his power to govern and perhaps remove him from office. "Many conservatives have a visceral dislike for President Clinton," the prophetic Mr Lewis continued. "They reason that, even if he is acquitted by the Senate, impeachment would mark him as not even President Nixon was marked. . ." All references to Mr Clinton henceforth will mention his impeachment. For a President concerned about his place in history, this is a dismal prospect.

"The accusers of Mr Clinton have abandoned all the potentially serious charges: Whitewater, campaign finance, Filegate," Mr Lewis continued. "What remains, however ingenuously framed, is lying about sex. To impeach him for that would trivialise a grave constitutional process and cast a lingering shadow on the Presidency." The Senate trial of President Clinton will begin days after Congress reconvenes on January 6th. The only president impeached before Mr Clinton was Andrew Johnson in 1868 for "high crimes and misdemeanours". His "crime" was to dismiss the Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton. Stanton was popular with the radical Republicans who dominated Congress and considered Johnson sympathetic to the defeated slaveholding Southern states.

Mr Clinton, too, is being persecuted for offences other than those with which he is charged. His enemies in Congress consider him too clever by half, also a liar, perjurer, adulterer and cheat. Right-wing radio talk-show commentators with substantial audiences denounce and mock him around the clock.

The first article of impeachment, lying under oath to prosecutor Kenneth Starr's grand jury about Monica Lewinskey, was adopted by 227 votes to 206 in the House. A second article accusing Mr Clinton of perjury in the Paula Jones case was defeated 229 votes to 205. A third, of obstructing justice in suggesting that his secretary lie about his relations with Monica Lewiskey, was carried 221 to 212 votes. A fourth, accusing him of abuse of power in answering 81 House Judiciary Committee questions, was defeated by 285 to 148 votes. Censure of the President for his transgressions is still being discussed, but the Republican majority feels his refusal to accept its corollary that he lied under oath is perjury and a most serious offence. Opinion polls show that two-thirds of the public want Mr Clinton to stay in office. Nearly all Republicans and at least one liberal Democrat, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, who hopes he will resign, will certainly call for his dismissal.

The Republican leaders appear to lack the necessary 67 votes to remove Mr Clinton from office. To verify this, they now hold test votes on the perjury and obstruction of justice charges, the Wall Street Journal reported.