Antique rules or common sense?

A matter for resignation has been turned into a politicised lawsuit with twisted definitions

AS THE United States enters yet another potentially decisive and - yes - historic week, some already burgeoning myths need to be scotched, and fast.

What happened in Washington last week was not the succession of ceremonial and constitutional triumphs it was cracked up to be; it was little short of a shambles. And one culprit was that revered document, the US constitution.

Americans seem confident, even now, that all is for the best in theirs, the best of all possible worlds. Their President may have been impeached, but the trial he faces will be "civil and fair".

The spirit of "bipartisanship", which regrettably fled the House of Representatives before last month's impeachment vote, has re-alighted to joyous acclaim in the Senate. Above all, the constitution, long a model for aspiring democracies, was vindicated. How wise were the framers that their words endured to this momentous hour!

The truth is rather different. The rituals that ushered in President Clinton's impeachment trial were not a dignified and awesome spectacle, but an inelegant melange of past and present, 18th-century formal and millennial casual. They were deficient in form and still emptier of content.

The symbolic walk from the House to the Senate by the 13 representatives- turned-prosecutors was an untidy progression of lounge-suited men who could have been going out on the golf course. There was none of the formal dignity that imbues the state opening of the British Parliament - the ceremony with which television commentators repeatedly compared it.

When the begowned Chief Justice arrived in the Senate chamber (for the first time in 130 years), he was greeted with the words "Pleased to welcome you," as though he was coming to cocktails, before swearing his antique oath. And when the Senators lined up to sign the "oath book" they looked, according to one US reporter from the provinces, as though they were queuing up to buy lottery tickets.

There was even a misprint on the commemorative pens, whose inscription read "the Untied [sic] States Senate". It did not take the titbit that the Chief Justice had styled his gown after a costume in Iolanthe to show up the proceedings as a sham.

Yet the progress of President Clinton's impeachment, far from vindicating the constitution, casts serious doubt on whether a 200-year-old document, however sage and far-sighted its authors, is a useful basis for challenging a president on the eve of the year 2000. The knots that the legislature has tied itself into so far only hint at the contortions ahead. Among the delights will be renewed debate on the meaning of "high crimes and misdemeanours"; a partisan battle over televising of the trial, and disagreement about the line between private and public morality.

So far, a constitution drawn up in 1787 has been more of a hindrance than a help. Once the formalities of last week's trial opening were over, the Senate was completely stumped as to what to do next. Its paralysis would have engulfed the the country in a vast constitutional crisis - if only the country had cared. The 100 sticklers for "bipartisanship" broke the deadlock only by dint of improvisation (an informal meeting in camera); even then, they merely deferred the nub of contention: the calling or not of witnesses.

The rigidity of the written constitution which prescribes only legalistic remedies for legalistic complaints has obscured the ethics involved and prolonged Mr Clinton's fight. A matter for resignation (over dual standards in public life and misleading the public), has been turned into a politicised lawsuit in which 18th-century definitions will be twisted by both sides for their own ends. It has cost months of legislative time, millions of dollars, and has harmed America abroad.

A decade ago, I - like many others - felt sympathetic to moves in Britain for a written constitution, a fixed set of rules that would make subjects into citizens, and guarantee our rights. Now I wonder.

In that time, I have watched written constitutions successively flouted (Tiananmen Square in 1989), crushed by the force of undreamt-of political change (the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991), and twisted in the interests of a political elite (France in the 1990s). Now, the venerable US constitution is buckling under the weight of American democracy as it has evolved this century.

The contest to come in the Senate promises to be an endless source of fascination and debate. But for the impediment of a written constitution, however, America's can-do common sense would have prevailed months ago.

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