What Difference a Year Makes

Article excerpt



In Paris this past December I visited with the president of the French senate. He asked me why President Clinton in such circumstances received such high poll ratings. I said, "I don't know." He said he thought he did. He reminded me that Napoleon's foreign minister Talleyrand once had said, "What becomes excessive becomes irrelevant."

This quote, I believe, captures the short-term lesson of the Clinton scandal. Finding out about Mr. Clinton's conduct was, for most Americans, like waking up one morning and discovering a drive-in movie screen had been erected overnight in your front yard, and on this screen was playing an XXX-rated movie starring the president of the United States! There you are, fixing breakfast, trying to get the kids off to school, and there is this XXXrated movie in your yard. Your first reaction is shock. Your next, outrage. But the movie screen and the movie are still there that evening. They're there the next morning. They won't go away. So what can you do? You do your best to throw a sheet over the screen-or several sheets. That doesn't work. So you go about your business and do your best to ignore it, hoping the outrageous event and all those reporting on it will somehow, someday disappear, but knowing that in the meantime you can't do anything about it. In other words, the whole affair becomes so excessive it becomes irrelevant to your everyday life-which is not the same as saying you approve of it or that you do not have your opinion about it. You know exactly what you think. But it has become more than you can deal with. You don't want to hear one more thing about it. You don't want to talk about it.

Which, if I am right, brings me to the long-term lesson. Sooner or later the American people will render a harsh judgment on Mr. Clinton's lack of respect for our presidency. In the long run, their message to public officials will be this: Respect the office. It is ours, not yours.


The trial procedures adopted by the Senate in the impeachment trial of William Jefferson Clinton promise to be one of the greatest constitutional aftershocks of the recently completed impeachment process. In setting rules effectively guaranteeing an acquittal, the Senate fundamentally altered our system of checks and balances, radically strengthening the position of the executive branch, and necessarily weakening the legislative.

In the days preceding the impeachment trial, senators were quick to publicly refer to themselves as "impartial jurors." They were attracted by the juror's role of impartially deciding guilt or innocence without commenting on the case in advance. Plus, it gave them a chance to toss out huge quantities of appropriately senatorial rhetoric, stressing their weighty constitutional responsibility.

As the trial commenced, however, a light went off in the heads of senators such as Fritz Hollings, Max Cleland, and Robert Byrd who, days before, were eagerly referring to themselves as jurors in correspondence and interviews. In a moment of collective epiphany came the terrifying realization that jurors are actually expected to render a verdict based solely on facts and law; which left one vexing problem facing these "impartial" senators: Based on the law and the evidence, the president was... guilty. Uh-oh. What to do now?

Suddenly, like a magic portal in a B science-fiction movie, an exit appeared. The Senate sitting in an impeachment trial is unlike other juries in one important aspect-it gets to make and reinterpret its own rules as it goes along.

The new exit strategy became jury nullification with an added twist. Instead of nullifying the law by refusing to enforce it, this particular "jury" simply nullified itself. As Sen. Arlen Specter observed, it adopted procedures rendering the case for removal "unprovable. …