Sunday, February 14, 1999

E N Q U I R E R   E D I T O R I A L

'No conviction' says it all

        The most powerful leader of the most powerful nation in the world was impeached and put on trial to be removed by his own government. Yet for all the loose-cannon hyperbole about “coups” and “wars,” the historic struggle was bloodless.

        That should make all Americans proud.

        No tanks clanked through the streets of Washington as they have in Peking, Moscow and other capitals around the world. Not a shot was fired. No costume-party generals put their polished black boots on the neck of liberty to “take control” during what the TV talkers breathlessly called a “crisis.”

        The only obvious casualties were wounded feelings, bruised reputations and maybe a few fractured political careers.

        With God's grace and remarkable wisdom, our Founders had the foresight to bequeath us a Constitution that peacefully resolves such struggles by honoring the rule of law.

        But still ... we are left with a bitter aftertaste that should not make Americans proud. The same Founders who made it possible to change leaders without a stumble gave us the impeachment mechanism to protect that rule of law.

        And this time, America flinched.

        Senators in both parties have worn out dictionaries looking for words corrosive enough to condemn Mr. Clinton. Again and again they say he is guilty of criminal perjury and obstruction of justice — and then they add the reprehensible “but,” a three-letter qualifier that condones corruption and rips a loophole in our national fabric.

        In 1868, the last time a president was impeached, a partisan plot by radical Republicans to convict and remove President Andrew Johnson was thwarted by one man, Republican Sen. Edmund Ross of Kansas. When he rose to cast his unexpected deciding vote against impeachment, Sen. Ross saw his own grave at his feet. But he courageously defied rabid partisanship and raging popular opinion. The reward for his honor and integrity was to be reviled and ruined.

        Almost 100 years later, he became one of John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage, for keeping his solemn oath to deliver “impartial justice.

        There were no profiles in courage in the U.S. Senate on Feb. 12, 1999. Some House managers belong alongside Sen. Ross. But the Senate did not stand so tall. Among the smallest was Republican Arlen Specter, who voted “not proven” to have it both ways on perjury.

        Democrats, so desperate to save their disgraced president and reclaim the Senate and House they controlled for decades, made a mockery of their oath. Some acknowledged crimes — but not one voted as the evidence and justice compelled. Not one.

        Their plan for an unconstitutional censure would do more damage. Just as they have lowered the bar for the presidency, censure would lower the bar for future partisan impeachments, merely to mouth empty words of rebuke.

        Words mean nothing to a president who lies under oath and quibbles over the definition of “is” and “alone.”

        Meanwhile, Republicans in the Senate frantically rattled doorknobs and fumbled keys, desperately searching for a way out. Among 55 Republicans, 45 voted guilty on perjury, 50 on obstruction. Without any Democrats, they could never reach the required 67 votes to convict and remove. And their own lack of convictions doomed even a simple majority.

        There is talk now of healing, bringing the country back together to “do the people's business” — as if anything is more important than judging a corrupt leader.

        House manager Rep. Steve Chabot struck the right note of conciliation, urging “that regardless of the trial's outcome we will join together to turn the page on this unfortunate chapter that President Clinton has written into our nation's history.”

        Would that it were so.

        The day before the Senate vote, the New York Times reported that Mr. Clinton was openly plotting vindictive retaliation against House managers such as Mr. Chabot.

        Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr is also at the top of Mr. Clinton's hit list. Attorney General Janet Reno, the president's pawn, has launched an investigation of intimidation against Mr. Starr, who could still indict Mr. Clinton.

        The trial is over — but the cultural battle is not. The parties are bitterly divided. Mr. Clinton has been driven into the embracing arms of his most devoted defenders on the far left.

        And the president's insolent defiance, his gloating contempt for morality and justice, his insincere contrition and shameless abuse of religion as a prop for his humility skits — all these drive Republicans to the right, where social conservatives see America in a struggle between good and evil.

        That is President Clinton's legacy: Division. Lacking the character to put the nation first and resign, he split Americans, driving a wedge along fault lines that trigger social earthquakes.

        A few things we know: Polls are no substitute for principles; “spin” is another word for “lies”; a nation that lets its highest leader get away with perjury, obstruction of justice, abuse of power, sexual harassment and degrading immorality will pay a price.

        By failing to punish crimes by a charming, popular liar, the Senate may have spread an infectious disease of cynicism that could cripple the rule of law that has kept our nation strong and healthy since our Founders conceived the proposition that “all men are created equal.”

        Americans should hope and pray Mr. Clinton finishes his term without more scandal eruptions and Richter-scale shocks along cultural fault-lines — or worse, a real crisis that reveals how dangerous it is to rely on an unstable leader who lacks character.

        President Clinton has survived impeachment with hardly a scratch on his armor-plated ego. America will also survive President Clinton.

        But not unscathed.


Impeachment vote may follow DeWine
Bury hatchet? Perhaps, but in whose back?
Polls support acquittal
Pundits debate fallout
Clinton Under Fire page