Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Beating the Rap

"The vote itself was anticlimactic, coming three weeks after the close of my defense. Only the margin of defeat was in doubt. I was just glad the ordeal was over for my family and my country. After the vote, I said I was profoundly sorry for what I had done to trigger the events and the great burden they imposed on the American people, and that I was rededicating myself to 'a time of reconciliation and renewal for America.' I took one question: 'In your heart, sir, can you forgive and forget?' I replied, 'I believe any person who asks for forgiveness has to be prepared to give it.' "

Bill Clinton
"My Life" (2004)

On this day in 1999 — 190 years after the birth of Abraham Lincoln — the U.S. Senate acquitted President Bill Clinton of charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.

It was the first time in more than a century — since Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, survived by a single vote — that an American president had been impeached by the House and then managed to be acquitted by the Senate. Articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon were approved by the House Judiciary Committee 40 years ago this summer, but Nixon resigned before the House could vote on them. Obviously, Nixon never faced trial in the Senate.

A year earlier, in January 1998, Clinton famously declared that "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss (Monica) Lewinsky." He also insisted that he never instructed anyone to lie.

But it was later revealed that Clinton did have an inappropriate relationship with Lewinsky.

And that was a big part of his detractors' case. From that act of deception sprang everything else.

Ultimately, they failed to persuade two–thirds of the Senate to convict, which is what the Constitution requires for the removal of a president. They fell short by a considerable margin. Clinton was correct when he wrote that the outcome was never in doubt. The bar was too high.

That was the calculating way that Clinton looked at things. It was something I picked up on when I covered one of his gubernatorial campaigns in Arkansas. I sat in on an interview with Clinton one day during his runoff with a former Arkansas lieutenant governor. It was observed to Clinton that supporters of the candidate who ran third in the primary were making noises about sitting out the runoff; Clinton, in effect, said he didn't care.

That may be hard to reconcile with the "I feel your pain" image that Clinton cultivated, but it represents merely one side of his political personality. That was the pragmatic, politically savvy Clinton, who understood that, in the most basic terms, if you took a voting bloc that large and that unpredictable, given the indifference most of that candidate's supporters had for both Clinton and his opponent in the runoff, he was better off if they chose not to participate. There was no telling which way they might go.

Clinton ran first in the primary, but he didn't quite reach 50%, forcing a runoff with the runnerup. The third–place finisher had received a lot of votes, but he didn't get enough to make the runoff. As I recall, there was only one other candidate in the primary; he ran fourth and attracted a relative handful of votes.

Therefore, if nearly all the people who voted in the runoff had voted for either Clinton or his opponent the first time, Clinton knew he would win — which he did.

In the Senate 15 years ago today, Clinton knew that the Republicans held the majority in the Senate. But, in order to reach the two–thirds threshold, they needed 12 Democrats to vote with them — and that wasn't going to happen. In fact, while Senate Democrats voted unanimously against conviction, some Republicans voted not acquit as well so the Senate's Republicans finished even farther from their goal than if the vote had been strictly along party lines.

After the vote, a number of Senate Republicans and their aides were quoted as saying they resented the fact that House Republicans had put them in that position. Perhaps they were right to feel that way. The next time the voters went to the polls, Republicans lost ground in the Senate but the numbers remained virtually unchanged in the House.

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