Clinton Trial: Day One: Silent elder statesmen sit in judgment

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THEY ENTERED the Senate Chamber beneath the portal inscribed "In God We Trust" and were reminded of their God-given responsibility in the chaplain's opening prayer. Departing from the standard benediction, he prayed in startlingly pointed fashion: "Dear Father, you guided the Senators to unity in matters of procedure, continue to make them one in their search for the truth and in their expression of justice. Keep them focused in a spirit of non-partisan patriotism, today and in the crucial days to come."

The Senate of the United States was in session, and its business was the trial of the President. The ceremonial of the previous week's opening session was gone, replaced by the great principles and the small print of the case against Bill Clinton.

The Chief Justice, William Rehnquist, was a black-robed presence on the dais, but more seen than heard. The suited senators sat in their places like small children in class: condemned by the rules of impeachment to keep silent. Some chewed their pencils; others criss-crossed their legs or passed notes. Among the Democrats, who looked just a little disconsolate, the lanky Pat Moynihan arranged himself around his undersized senatorial desk, and Robert Byrd, the reputed guardian of the Constitution, struggled to stay awake. A few, a very few, took notes on their yellow legal pads.

The most assiduous note-taker was not in the senate ranks, but David Kendall, Mr Clinton's lugubrious lawyer, who sat with his colleagues at the long wooden table, commissioned especially for this trial. Mr Chief Justice, as those present were instructed to address him in their special sheet of standing orders, called on Henry Hyde, the chairman of the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee and leader of the House "prosecutors" to speak. Mr Hyde's theme was the judicial oath: the oaths Mr Clinton had sworn as president and grand jury witness; the oath the senators had sworn to do "impartial justice". And he was much taken with the history of Sir Thomas More - in the Robert Bolt rendition. Here was a man, he said, "who went to his death rather than take an oath in vain".

Trying hard, perhaps too hard, in his slightly amateurish, patrician way, to make a mark on history, he urged: "Members of the Senate, what you do over the next few weeks will forever affect the meaning of those two words, `I do.' You are now stewards of the oath... Depending on what you decide, it will either be strengthened in its power to achieve justice or it will go the way of so much of our moral infrastructure and become a mere convention, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

But the day belonged to Congressman F James Sensenbrenner Jnr, a 55-year- old lawyer from Wisconsin dairy country and one of the wealthiest members of Congress, a rumpled millionaire who famously augmented his existing fortune with a quarter of a million dollar win on the Washington DC lottery. Mr Sensenbrenner spoke for an hour, a prepared speech that was not elegantly structured, but which made the case, perhaps the most convincing case yet heard by the legislature or the American public, for the removal of Bill Clinton from office.

Mr Sensenbrenner, whose contributions to the House judiciary committee debate last year had given the impression of an immoderate dogmatist, had chosen what was for him a tone of restraint. Taking the broad brush rather than the stylus, he opened with a quotation from President Theodore Roosevelt: "No man is above the law and no man is below it; nor do we ask any man's permission when we require him to obey it. Obedience to the law is demanded as a right; not asked as a favour."

"We are here today," he went on, "because President William Jefferson Clinton decided to put himself above the law, not once, not twice, but repeatedly."

The President, Mr Sensenbrenner said, had engaged in "a multifaceted scheme to obstruct justice" and prevent Paula Jones, the plaintiff in a sexual harassment lawsuit against him, from exercising her right to a court hearing. In so doing, he had "unlawfully prevented the judicial branch from fulfilling its obligations."

Mr Clinton's conduct, he said, was contrary to his responsibility - as chief law officer of the country - to uphold the law. He stressed that it was not the affair with Ms Lewinsky that was the reason for the President's impeachment. That was "inappropriate and immoral", he said, but not a matter for impeachment. It was the "false testimony.... and the legal hairsplitting" in Mr Clinton's grand jury testimony that had elevated the matter from the private domain to the public.

Mr Sensenbrenner made three other points. First, he set out to demolish the White House argument that perjury before a grand jury, the accusation contained in the first Article of Impeachment against the President, did not "rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanours" - the conduct deemed impeachable in the Constitution. Perjury, Mr Sensenbrenner said, was the basis of the legal system. It attracted the same penalties as bribery (which is specifically mentioned as impeachable): "perjury," he said, "is the twin brother of bribery" and was equally impeachable.

Second, he addressed the argument that "everyone lies about sex" to say that if that defence were allowed, then in many sexual harassment cases would result in acquittals and "plaintiffs, mostly women, will be denied justice". Third, he asked what message would be sent to the country, and to those appearing before the courts in future, if the President were held to an inferior standard of veracity.

And in a passage that infuriated the White House - which responded with an immediate rebuttal - Mr Sensenbrenner cited the testimony of Mr Clinton's lead lawyer, Charles Ruff, before the House judiciary committee. He was asked, Mr Sensenbrenner said: "Did the President lie?" Mr Ruff - Mr Sensenbrenner said - "could have answered that question directly. He did not, and his failure to do so speaks a thousand words."

Senators on the Democratic side of the aisle did not look happy through Mr Sensenbrenner's hour of exegesis. With the exceptions of Pat Moynihan and Edward Kennedy, they appeared to be trying not to look engaged and thus not perturbed. They seemed to balk at the parallels he drew between the offences of Mr Clinton and those of judges who had been successfully impeached. They balked, too, at some of his more telling and basic phrases. Of Mr Clinton: "Even a President of the United States has no licence to lie under oath"; of Paula Jones and her lawsuit: "Every American has the right to go to court to right a wrong". And if that right is not honoured? "It will create a cancer that will keep the legislative branch from fulfilling all its functions."

After Mr Sensenbrenner had returned to his seat at the House managers' table to the left of the dais, he was succeeded at the podium by Edward Bryant, a Tennessean who tried to compensate for his drawling delivery by having an easel brought and displaying visual aids - mostly passages of text from the grand jury testimony -- which he highlighted with a pointer. Mr Bryant's job was to retell the tale of Bill and Monica as it has been told so often before (but without - as he made clear at the outset - the graphic detail of the sexual encounters). Not, he hastened to explain, that such detail was not important, but because it was not at this point necessary.

The combination of Mr Bryant's drawl and the wellworn story of Oval Office trysts shorn of their "dirty bits" lulled the postprandial Senators perhaps more than was advisable. And an adjournment was declared before Asa Hutchinson, a Representative from Mr Clinton's home state of Arkansas, went to the microphone. Mr Hutchinson, who has two handicaps - the provenance he shares with Mr Clinton which makes him more sympathetic than many Republicans to his case, and the fact that his brother, Senator Tim Hutchinson, was on the "jury" before him - was persuasive in the moderate, low-key way he made his own during the House judiciary committee sessions.

But the day belonged to Mr Sensenbrenner and he, and the wagging tongues of Washington, and the White House all knew it.