IMPEACHMENT HEARINGS: Process could be simply a formality

BILL CLINTON followed Richard Nixon and Andrew Johnson into the history books yesterday when the judiciary committee of the House of Representatives opened formal impeachment hearings that could culminate in his removal from office. They could, but - unless there is a sharp change of public or Congressional mood - they will not.

Thanks to the Democrats' unexpectedly strong showing in the mid-term Congressional elections two weeks ago, the future of Mr Clinton's presidency is assured, and the impeachment proceedings that looked threatening only six weeks ago, now appear merely inconvenient, if not irrelevant.

Two months ago, when the report of the independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, was published, there was a seriousness and sadness on both sides of the political divide at the President's conduct in the Monica Lewinsky affair and a recognition of the implications. Last month, when the House judiciary committee debated whether to proceed to hearings at all, committee members made at least a nod to the historical and political context of their deliberations.

Yesterday, despite attempts by the chairman, Henry Hyde, and senior Democrats on the committee to preserve the dignity of the occasion, only the third set of impeachment hearings in US history were without either epic quality or gravitas. The high principleswere tackled only in the testimony of Mr Starr.

In his two-hour statement, Mr Starr presented the best case he could that President Clinton broke both the law of the land and his oath of office "to faithfully execute the law". But partly because of his flat delivery and partly because Americans (and their congressional representatives) have already made up their minds about Mr Clinton, his arguments barely registered.

Mr Starr's case against Mr Clinton was compelling - in some ways more compelling than the case he made in his report, where the legal issues were shrouded in layers of salacious detail about the sex scandal. His investigation, he stated yesterday, showed that the President committed perjury on numerous occasions both in his sworn deposition in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case and in his sworn testimony in the Lewinsky case. In lying to White House staff and associates, he had "concocted false alibis that these government employees repeated to the grand jury" in the Lewinsky case.

Mr Starr may have been on more contentious legal ground when he accused Mr Clinton of deceiving the American people and misusing government privileges. But even if the perjury and obstruction of justice accusations itemised yesterday constituted the whole of Mr Starr's case, lawyers tend to agree that it would be sufficient to warrant criminal charges.

US legal analysts have written volumes recently about the distinction between impeachable and criminal offences. But the bottom line is that the removal of a president's mandate is a political, as well as judicial, process. Americans invest power in the president, and impeachment is the means by which Congress, in the name of the people, can remove that mandate.

In theory, the charges against Mr Clinton are considered by the House judiciary committee, voted on by the full House, and passed - if judged to be warranted - to the Senate for "trial". By a chance of timing, the mid-term elections preempted that process, giving the people a "voice" before their elected representatives had judged Mr Clinton on their behalf, and leaving what would have been an historic occasion, an empty shell.

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