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David Shapiro

By David Shapiro

Saturday, February 13, 1999

Senators earned
their pay on scandal

UNITED States senators may have the cushiest jobs on Earth. They're pampered like princes and princesses in Washington's halls of power. There's always somebody to get the elevator. They have their own private dining room that serves a bean soup named after them.

Senators have special parking at the airport -- unless, of course, they're delivered to their flights in big black limos. With talented personal staffs of more than 30, senators who are so inclined needn't do much actual work themselves. That's why so many are able to serve far into their retirement years.

Senators like to flatter themselves with lofty descriptions such as "the world's greatest deliberative body" or "the world's most exclusive club." They like to congratulate each other on their bonhomie in the face of partisan frictions.

We forgive them their pomposity and affectations because they earn their keep in one huge way: Senators know how to play the big game and come through in the clutch.

That's what they did yesterday in bringing a dignified end to our 13-month impeachment trauma, voting to acquit President Clinton on both counts brought by the House.

More than any other political institution, the U.S. Senate holds playing by the rules above all else. Because of their devotion to the rules, senators have a powerful beacon to guide them safely through any storm. The Senate's sense of fair play is vital to our system of checks and balances and the resiliency of our democracy.

In playing their part in the impeachment drama, senators broke out a set of rules that hadn't been used in more than a century since the Andrew Johnson impeachment. The way the old rituals held up in a different age was a beautiful thing to watch.

Clinton's sleazy Oval Office affair with intern Monica Lewinsky demeaned the president, his office, his country, his family and Lewinsky. But it was a personal matter that simply couldn't be sold as an impeachable offense.

Runaway special prosecutor Kenneth Starr never should have sent the case to the House and the House never should have sent it to the Senate. The trial judge and appeals court in the Paula Jones case, which spawned the perjury and obstruction of justice charges, were quite capable of handling the matter.

But once senators got the case, they had to play it out even though the charges lacked the bipartisan support our founding fathers required to remove a president.

At times, senators came close to falling into the petty partisan circus that marked the House proceedings. But invariably, their rules and traditions got them back on track.

SENATORS refused to pointlessly prolong the trial to provide political cover for the House managers who were looking for a face-saving way out of this fiasco. They resisted demands to short-circuit the constitutional process with a censure vote instead of an up-or-down vote on the articles of impeachment. They cut off political grandstanding by conducting deliberations where trial jurors belong -- behind closed doors.

When it was over, senators congratulated themselves on their good manners and left the country positioned to move forward on important issues like Social Security -- provided that partisans on both sides put policy ahead of revenge and Starr doesn't foolishly try to indict the president in the Lewinsky case.

Republican Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee gave a fitting benediction. "We followed the process and the system works," he said. "You can't complain about that."

No complaints here.

David Shapiro is managing editor of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at editor@starbulletin.com.

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