Clinton's Senate Trial: Brief start of pomp and ceremony

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The Independent Online
TO BEGIN the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton yesterday took only 45 minutes; but what minutes they were, elaborately choreographed and scripted down to the last detail.

The raw power politics of Washington was filtered through the fine mesh of inherited British parliamentary protocol and legal nicety for this extraordinary day. And if it seemed that there was a touch of Gilbert and Sullivan to the proceedings, well, perhaps there was. They began with 13 hard-faced men in dark suits, eyes front, feet planted solidly on the floor, marching from one side of the Capitol building to the other before the might of the international press corps and camera-popping Japanese tourists.

Flanked by secret service men and the armed Capitol Police, they moved noiselessly across the glassy polished floor to reach the theoretical midway point in the centre of the rotunda, below the great Capitol Dome.

This was impeachment incarnate, taking itself from the rambunctious House of Representatives to the calmer and more august chambers of the United States Senate. This was the firing squad - the impeachment trial managers from the House, moving the drama on to a bigger stage. They were met by the Sergeant-at-Arms and ushered towards the chamber while the rest of us hoofed it up the back stairs, through the labyrinthine corridors and past the security check points, up to the press gallery to see them received by the Senate at 10am.

Strom Thurmond, at 96 the oldest senator in this (or probably any other legislature) welcomed them in his slow Southern drawl. The old reactionary was perfectly cast, and in his element.

We were told to keep silent, "on pain of imprisonment".

Henry Hyde, the Republican Congressman from Chicago who ran the hearings in the House, read out the charges in a breathy Mid-Western voice, sometimes stumbling, sometimes pausing for emphasis, but always austere and pointed.

The proceedings were adjourned at 10.15am, and the quiet dignity of the morning became a frenzy as the journalists leapt off to pontificate or file their copy and the politicians went to caucus.

At a little after 1.15pm, everyone returned to their places, brushing their hair for the cameras, exchanging quiet smiles or the tight, body- close handshakes accompanied by shoulder-clenches that are a staple of the Washington scene. This was the climax. All stood and fell silent for William Rehnquist, the Chief Justice of the United States. Mr Rehnquist, another dyed-in-the-wool conservative, looked lovely in a gown he had designed himself, black with four gold stripes on the arm.

The image was somewhere in between referee, Oxford don and superhero. I am told by an impeccable source that so impressed was he by the costume worn by the Lord Chancellor in a performance of Iolanthe that he decided to have one himself. It was commented on by his colleagues that he had failed to zip it up properly, revealing tantalising glimpses of shirt and tie.

Mr Thurmond swore him in ("Playce yuh layft haynd awn thuh Bahble"). The Chief Justice then swore in the senators, now jury members, asking them to raise their hands (which they did, some higher than others) and then swearing each in individually.

Some rose enthusiastically, shooting off to sign their names like gun dogs. Others (Ted Kennedy, for example), lingered in their seats before ambling down to do the deed.

They signed the oath book with pens which, like the baseballs fired by Mark McGwire into the stands all last summer, will now become more than just objects: they are collectables.

By 1.45pm, it was complete. Trent Lott, the ultra-conservative Senate Majority Leader, must have breathed a sigh of relief that this day, at least, had gone flawlessly. Whatever comes next, the last act of impeachment had begun.

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