Whatever happens, the President's impeachment is a crisis for American government and society of the first magnitude. It is both dramatic evidence of how bitter American politics has become and an ominous indication of how divisions are likely to deepen. Historically, the civil rights legislation of the Sixties destroyed the Democratic coalition of northern liberals and southern conservatives, leaving the two sides ideologically divided as never before.
This is not, as one London tabloid called it, a "sex trial". It is a grave constitutional crisis and it will turn not on the American public's attitude to sexual morality but on the Senate's judgment about whether the President perjured himself and abused his oath of office.
When the Senate sits on the impeachment resolutions, its presiding officer will be the Chief Justice, William Rehnquist. That is not good news for President Clinton, for Rehnquist is an ultra conservative, originally a supporter of Senator Barry Goldwater, who ran unsuccessfully for the White House as a conservative in 1964, and a nominee and supporter of Richard Nixon, who resigned rather than face impeachment in 1974.
As it happens, the Chief Justice published in 1992 a scholarly study of the impeachment process and, in particular, of the impeachment trials of Chief Justice Samuel Chase in 1805 and President Andrew Johnson in 1868. In his book Rehnquist makes some points about the Nixon case that have ironic resonances today. He points out that, in 1974, members of the House of Representatives judiciary committee (the majority, of course, then Democrats) rejected the view advanced today by some Democrats in Clinton's defence that the "high crimes and misdemeanours" for which, according to the constitution, a president can be removed must be indictable offences under criminal law.
But he makes a very interesting point about the Chase and Johnson impeachments. In each case, Rehnquist points out, impeachment followed a period when a victorious party, having at last achieved power in Congress, found itself frustrated by a chief justice or a president. In 1805 it was the Jefferson Republicans (ancestors of today's Democrats), who worked off their frustration on the Federalist Chase.
In 1868 it was the radical Republicans who, having won the Civil War and emancipated the slaves, wanted to push through a radical "Reconstruction" of the defeated southern states and found themselves frustrated by the conservative (and southern) Johnson. The immediate issue was Johnson's sacking of his Secretary of War, a response to the radical Republicans' Tenure of Office Act; the underlying issue was the Republicans' wish to give the vote to the newly freed blacks in the South.
Johnson survived, by a single vote, in the most melodramatic circumstances imaginable. The decisive vote came from a dying senator, carried into the chamber on a couch. In reality, Johnson survived because half a dozen moderate Republicans, troubled by the reckless enthusiasm of Thaddeus Stevens, Ben Butler and the other radicals, voted for acquittal.
The key to what is happening in Washington now is again the rage and frustration felt by the activist conservative Republicans because they think they are being robbed of the fruits of their victory. They thought there had been a Reagan Revolution, with the liberals confounded and conservatives in the saddle for the next generation at least. Then they had to put up with George Bush, just the kind of moderate Republican they dislike more even than liberals.
In 1994 they offered their "Contract with America" and won a smashing victory under Newt Gingrich, capturing both houses of Congress for the first time for two generations - only to see Bill Clinton pop up again in 1996. They managed to get an arch conservative, Kenneth Starr, appointed as special prosecutor to investigate first the Clintons' financial dealings in Arkansas, and then anything that might be thrown at them. But, after spending $40m, Starr came up with nothing.
Clinton won the 1996 election. Imagine the congressional Republicans' thrill when they learned that their enemy had not only been recklessly meeting a young intern for sexual trysts in the White House but had been foolish enough to lie on oath, and on television, about it.
Clinton repeated his lie and was caught out, in part thanks to unscrupulous prosecutorial manoeuvres by Starr and his bloodhounds. Once again the radical Republicans thought they had got their man, and once again, in the mid-term elections last month, he slipped away.
The strain has been telling on the Republicans. Newt Gingrich survived a clumsy, abortive coup last July, only to be forced to resign after the party's poor performance in November. Now his successor, Robert Livingston, has resigned after admitting that he, too, had strayed from the marriage bed. To lose two speakers in a month argues a certain carelessness, or a certain desperation. But they closed ranks, voted the straight party line and pushed through impeachment,
What happens now? There are 55 Republicans in the Senate and only 45 Democrats. But conviction on an impeachment requires a two-thirds vote. On the face of it, that would seem to mean that the Republicans are unlikely to get the 67 votes they need; apart from anything else, they cannot be sure of every last Republican senator's vote.
Nothing that has happened since the Lewinsky scandal first broke, however, encourages confident, linear prediction. The Senate trial will be the focus of the most intense media feeding frenzy that is imaginable. The Republicans are desperate not to see their prey escape yet again. The Democrats, however, are not so united.
Public support for President Clinton remains at a high level, and has even risen since he was impeached. But conservative Republicans are not as interested in public opinion as they are in the wishes of their ideologically passionate activists and financial backers.
There has been much talk in Washington of deals, and plea-bargaining comes naturally to American lawyers, which is what many members of the Senate are. In theory, the Senate can do what it likes. It can decide, by a simple majority vote, not to proceed with the trial. It can decide whether or not to hear witnesses and if so whether to hear them in public or in camera.
The Senate could certainly vote to censure the President, with or without a fine, perhaps requiring him to sign his own condemnation Censure, however, is what the President's defenders want, and for that reason alone it would feel like yet another humiliating frustration for his pursuers.
My own hunch is that the debate in the Senate will go the whole way, and the final vote will not come before extraordinary dramas and manoeuvres. There are several influential Democratic senators who are outraged by the President's behaviour. They feel he has let them, their party and the country down. Some or all of them might come out for impeachment. Or, at the last minute, they might orchestrate a movement for some compromise that could not be dismissed as a slap on the wrist - though it is not easy to imagine what that could be.
So the next three months will see unprecedented passions and unanticipated events. It will all be great fun. It will also be bad news for the United States and therefore for the rest of us. Both the presidency and the Congress will emerge from the crisis, whatever happens, with their reputation damaged, and so in a sense will the American system,
Never has the US exerted more influence, even hegemony, than now; never has its domestic political system been more hell-bent on self-destruction. America is a strong society, and its institutions are tougher than they sometimes look. It remains to be seen how they will cope with the new media, for whom nothing is sacred, and with the new politics, by which angry, ideologically conservative Republicans, slug it out with angry, ideologically liberal Democrats, with the rules even rougher than they were for fighting in the old Arkansas river ports, where everything was allowed but for biting, gouging and bollocking.
Hamish McRae's weekly column will appear tomrrowReuse content