Wasps in the Senate get swatted by Clinton team

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IT HAS been a week of mostly painstaking legal and political argument in Washington, but a slow, passionate speech and a powerful declamation from the Clinton camp in the impeachment trial symbolised what kind of America the President's team has come to represent. And it is a country in sharp contrast with the Wasp nation typified by the members of the Senate.

First there were the intense words of Cheryl Mills, the slim black woman who finds herself at the age of 33 a key member of the President's legal team. The other was the oration by a last-minute addition to the White House legal team: Mr Clinton's friend and political ally, Dale Bumpers, who retired as a Senator only last month.

Mr Bumpers gave the closing statement for the defence and transformed the atmosphere, leaving the Republican prosecutors furious that rhetorical alchemy could so affect what they had presented as an open-and-shut legal argument. He gave justification to the popular instinct: that whatever Mr Clinton had done, it did not warrant removal from office.

Ms Mills also mingled the personal with the judicial, hailing Mr Clinton's commitment to civil rights while denouncing the injustice of the charges.

These two speeches stood out not just for their shared passion, but also because they were so distinct. The one - Mr Bumpers's - stood out because it was so in harmony with the surroundings, speaking to the solemnity of the setting, and also because Mr Bumpers looked the quintessential Senator. The other - Ms Mills's - stood out because both she and what she had to say were so unlike her surroundings. Here was this young, black woman, a beneficiary - as she gratefully acknowledged - of the civil rights movement, affirmative action and Mr Clinton's own policies, defending the President of the United States.

And while Mr Bumpers was utterly at home in the Senate, in the White House legal team he was almost a misfit. His late co-option reflected the Clinton camp's need for someone who could address the Senate as one of them.

The White House legal team is proportionately far younger, more feminine and more ethnically mixed than the Senate, and Mr Clinton's chief lawyer, Mr Ruff, is in a wheelchair. There was a real question about how well they would be able to communicate their case to a body in which, it is often said, each one believes he deserves to be President.

In retrospect, it might have been the Senate that had the greater cause to worry. To Americans, especially urban ones, the homogeneity of the Senate, in age, sex and ethnic composition, sent a clear message: that power in the upper chamber of the legislature resides with a body that is a throwback to an earlier America. No wonder that a majority has declined to watch and as many profess no interest.

Further investigation of the Senate's composition would reveal the paucity not only of ethnic minorities and women, but of Catholics and Jews. The Senate is dominated by the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (Wasps) who long constituted a US aristocracy. They are more religiously conservative and less liberal than the traditional Wasp, but just as white, just as male, and just as interested in preserving the past.

As the impeachment of President Clinton has advanced, dividing American opinion in two, US commentators have increasingly reflected on a battle of cultures. Mr Clinton is the baby-boom generation come to power; he brought with him a Sixties culture of lax sexual morals, a relativistic attitude to truth, and scant respect for institutions. His accusers, like the independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr, are held up as would-be preservers of traditional American values.

There is truth in such observations, but not the whole truth. The visual contrast in the Senate denotes not just a difference in mores. It sets a younger, more variegated America against the power-holders of the past. It was a sign that the old white elite of Wasps and rednecks must learn to share power. By the middle of the next century, white Americans will no longer constitute an absolute majority in the United States; their demographic power will decline, and so in time must their political dominance.

If Mr Clinton emerges from his Senate trial in office and effectively unpunished, it will be one of the first victories of the new order against the old. A moralistic backlash may follow, but it cannot last. The white elite has done much for America, but the question for the future is how gracefully will the Wasps cede their power.