It was only the second time in US history that the House had weighed the impeachment of the President, but the sense of history lost out to a sense of indignation.
The atmosphere in the House chamber was raucous and bad-tempered, more reminiscent of Britain's noisy and combative House of Commons than the drawing-room style of the US House of Representatives. As soon as the formalities - the oath of allegiance and the opening prayer - were completed the Democrats ventured a resolution of adjournment on the grounds that discussion of impeachment was inappropriate at such a time.
They also ventured, half-heartedly, a motion of censure to replace the impeachment, but they failed on both counts, and the House reading clerk, Paul Hays, opened the historic debate with a ringing rehearsal of the articles of impeachment: the four charges - two of perjury, one of obstructing justice and one of abuse of power - on which Bill Clinton stands accused.
Anticipating, perhaps, what was to come, the chairman for the debate, Ray LeHood, laid down the rules of civility and seemly conduct. But his warning fell on deaf - or reluctant - ears. The debate that followed descended rapidly into a jumble of fearsome charges, lofty rhetoric, childish point- scoring and remembered slights.
Republicans harked back to Richard Nixon, the president who resigned rather than lose an impeachment vote in the House. For the Democrats, the leitmotif was "unfairness", the unfairness which had impelled the Republicans to reschedule the debate so soon, the unfairness of the charges against the President, the unfairness of threatening to impeach a president who enjoyed the confidence and support of "the people".
But the debate was opened with appropriate gravitas by Henry Hyde, the patrician chairman of the House judiciary committee, who had chaired the six weeks of impeachment hearings and overseen the formulation of the charges. Citing Benjamin Franklin and the Magna Carta, and sprinkling his rhetoric with an almost Clinton-like populism, Mr Hyde noted that the White House had hardly contested the accusations against the President. "They've admitted, in fact, that he did it, but question whether it rises to the level of high crimes and misdemeanours. It's a `so what?' defence."
Referring to the volumes of evidence supplied by the independent counsel, Kenneth Starr, in the Monica Lewinsky case, Mr Hyde said: "We have the facts; we have them under oath; we have Ms Lewinsky's heavily corroborated evidence." The rule of law, he said, "is one of the great achievements of our history ... Law, not brute force, is the arbiter of our public destiny ... For anyone to violate the law is to trample on the blood of his father."
And in a calculated allusion to Mr Clinton's widely praised talent as a politician and his continuing popularity, Mr Hyde stressed: "No man, no matter how gifted a manipulator of opinion, can be above the law." Paraphrasing the first and central theme of his committee's report to Congress, the argument that the President, as chief executive, has a paramount duty to uphold the law of the land , Mr Hyde noted the historic significance of the debate (and the one, perhaps, for which yesterday's proceedings will be remembered).
"We are in the process of setting the parameters of permissible presidential conduct," he said, and went on: "We cannot have one law for the ruler and another for the ruled. If that understanding is lost, the American experiment - and the freedom it guarantees - is lost."
Responding to Mr Hyde was the firebrand orator, Dick Gephardt, leader of the minority Democrats, who had led their pleas for the debate to be postponed until the military engagement with Iraq was at an end.
But Mr Gephardt was not his aggressive self. He adopted a quiet, importunate mode, calling - almost wistfully - for the House to observe "certain values: trust, fairness, forgiveness..." and for "politics of respect and decency". The President, he said, was accused of "abuse of power". "We have an obligation not to abuse our power."
For his models, he took the Prophet Isaiah and the Gettysburg Address of Abraham Lincoln: "In your effort to uphold the Constitution," he chided, "you are trampling the Constitution." And he closed: "Let fairness reign."
Fairness, at least as Mr Gephardt would define it, however, was far from the thoughts of many honourable members. They shuffled and they barracked, they cheered and they booed. Time and again, the chairman intervened to tell them to stop interrupting and stay in their seats, but the effects were shortlived, and battle was rejoined.
A vote - that President Clinton should stand trial in the Senate - was a foregone conclusion, foreshadowed in the defeat of Democrats' attempts to have the debate postponed. The only question was when: when would Bill Clinton follow Andrew Johnson, impeached for sacking his war secretary in 1868, into the history books?Reuse content