We repeatedly are told that the acquittal of President Bill Clinton in his Senate impeachment trial is a dead certainty, that the vote later this week only can become more approving of the President. There is only one scenario that might produce a different outcome. This, after all, is not a vote like any other vote the 100 Senators will cast in the course of their political careers. It is not like a highway bill or a pay raise or even a declaration of war. It is ultimately an act of conscience that Senate members know will be the only vote for which they are remembered a hundred years from now. Of all the members of the Senate, the only member who now understands this down to his toes and fingertips is Sen. Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia. At the time of the vote itself, to the degree other members realize this is what they are doing, the chances of conviction will increase. William Bennett of Empower America, Secretary of Education in the Reagan administration and author of The Death of Outrage, Monday night on MSNBC went as far as to pointedly warn two of his old Democratic friends in the Senate, Daniel Moynihan of New York and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, that while today they might win popular applause for their acquittal votes, they would be shamed by history. It would be harder to get the 34 votes for acquittal if each of the 100 Senators vote their conscience as they swore an oath they would do. In parallel with the President, far too many are prepared to accept the pleasures of the moment without reckoning the pregnant consequences of their behavior.
At the conclusion of the truncated trial, it absolutely is clear the case is air-tight for the articles of impeachment. Very few senators will insult our intelligence by suggesting otherwise. In a remarkable interview with ABC-TV’s Cokie Roberts on Sunday, Senator Byrd flatly stated what is on the mind of almost all of his Democratic colleagues -- that the President did commit the high crimes and misdemeanors of which he is charged and they do rise to the level of impeachment. Yet he said he will make up his mind at the last minute whether they rise to the level of conviction. If he votes to convict, his vote of conscience will challenge others to follow. He says he still is struggling with his own conscience, even while waving aside the defense mounted by the President’s lawyers -- a transparent series of straw men erected and knocked down. In their closing arguments, the House managers correctly noted the defense team put other people on trial -- Vernon Jordan, Sidney Blumenthal, Betty Currie, Monica Lewinsky -- and then insisted the President was innocent because the charges against the others could not be proved.
When Senator Byrd some two weeks ago stunned the Capital by saying he would introduce the motion to dismiss all charges against the President, he assumed a profoundly important leadership role. Sen. Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, had previously said his own views of the impeachment process largely would be guided by Byrd’s, the constitutional conscience of the Senate. When Byrd was so peremptory in moving to dismiss, it was totally out of character, and I wondered if this were a tactical maneuver on his part to lead his Democratic colleagues where he wished them to go. I’d seen old-fashioned Senate leaders like Everett Dirksen and Richard Russell employ this technique 30 years ago, getting in front of a parade of their colleagues that was going in the opposite direction of where they wanted it to go. Then, by carefully graduated degrees, they would turn the parade to where they wished. Byrd knew that if he did not join the motion to dismiss he would be marginalized. By offering the motion, he gained a certain amount of moral authority over his colleagues. In a subtle way, he got them to feel more comfortable allowing him to do their thinking.
In his Sunday interview, Byrd expressed the dilemma they all face: “The question is, does this rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors? I say yes. No doubt about it in my mind. But the issue is should the President be removed? Should this President be removed? That’s the issue.” Cokie Roberts then asked: “But if you feel that it rises to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors, how can you vote not to remove?” Byrd: “Well, there are many other factors that we also have to take into consideration. In these remaining two years. I can turn my back on this. I can close this as a chapter... I have to think when I vote, should he be removed or should he not be removed? What’s in the best interest of the nation? We have -- there has been such polarization, such a division of the American people and to remove him, does it help that? Or does it make the wound deeper? And it seems to me that in the best interests of the nation -- and no president will ever be removed in my judgment when the economy is at record highs. People are voting their wallets and in answering the polls. They don’t want him removed. They know, as I know, about the crimes that have been committed.”
Roberts: “But what are you voting if you vote not to remove him, having said that he has committed high crimes and misdemeanors?” Byrd: “I’m voting -- if I vote not to convict, I’m voting not to remove because conviction carries with it removal. I have no doubt that he has given false testimony under oath. And that he has misled the American people and that he has -- there are indications that he has indeed obstructed justice. But having said all of that, under the circumstances -- he has less than two years to serve, he has done a lot of good things, and the American people don’t want him removed. And in the interests of the country, I may come to the conclusion that we should not remove him for these reasons... And the final judgment will be -- I believe as history looks back on it, that the Senate in a very, very difficult situation, the most -- the most heart-wrenching of any vote that any senator will ever be called on to make is the vote to convict or acquit. It will be very difficult to stand and say not guilty. Very difficult. Who’s kidding whom here? I have to live with my conscience. And I have to live with the Constitution. And that Constitution is just like the Bible. You can’t write it over.” “So you will be able to stand and say not guilty?” asked Cokie Roberts. Said Senator Byrd: “Next Friday or before we will know.”
The conscience of the Senate is putting it as clearly as he can that the Senate Democrats are being offered a Faustian bargain. In the short term, there are no consequences to voting acquittal. It will be a popular decision because the polls say so. In the long term, the Faustian bargain leads to perdition. Shall we simply let the good times roll? The President is guilty, but the stock market and economy are booming and the people do not want him removed. Byrd wonders: Shall we go that route? I’m told by some Republicans that I am sniffing glue if I expect Byrd to vote conviction, and perhaps I am, but Byrd knows this vote will be the one for which he is remembered. It does seem more likely that he would not buy the Faustian bargain himself. This is what got President Clinton into trouble to begin with, the idea that he could bottle eternal youth with a 21-year-old intern, and somehow would not have to deliver his soul at some future date -- in the process committing more felonies in the Oval Office than all previous Presidents combined. It not only is a defining moment in the shaping of our national character, but also an expression of our moral leadership in the world. Imagine piling all six billion people on earth into a pyramid and putting Bill Clinton at the tippy-top, gloating at his triumph over common sense, playing his bongo drums and chewing his cigar. In the few days that remain, perhaps the gay parade will turn. I’ll leave it to Senator Byrd to decide for me. If it is acquittal, I’ll simply have to hope it is only a fitting conclusion to the 20th century and not the beginning of the 21st.