After the skillful lawyers' arguments for and against President Clinton, it is clear that the Senate needs to hear from at least one witness to reach a fair judgment in the impeachment trial. She is Betty Currie, the president's personal secretary.
No one's name was invoked more often by the House managers or by the White House defenders. No one else had a closer relationship over a longer period with both the president and Monica Lewinsky. No one else could do more to resolve the legitimate doubts senators may have about the case against the president.
There are those -- including some senators in both parties -- who maintain that the outcome of this trial is foreordained and there's no reason to delay a verdict. The possibility of 12 senators of the president's own party voting to remove him from office, when large majorities of the public tell pollsters they want him to remain, is so remote, it's time "to end the charade," they say. Even if Republicans controlled 67 of the 100 Senate seats -- rather than the 55 they actually have -- the case that has been made may not be strong enough to assure the required two-thirds majority.
They may be proved right. But if the president is to be acquitted, it is important that it not be by a party-line vote. The House impeachment process was damaged by the widespread public perception that it was, at bottom, an exercise in partisan power, engineered by the majority Republicans over the protests of the Democratic minority.
That is, in my judgment, a distorted view; the last 25 or 30 House Republicans to declare themselves on impeachment were motivated not by animus toward the president or pressure from their peers, but rather by their belief, after much soul-searching, that his actions were serious enough for him to stand trial.
But the worst outcome in the Senate would be another party-line verdict. It would convince some voters that this had been a Republican witch hunt and others that Clinton would have been convicted, were it not for the obdurate refusal of the Democrats to face facts.
The residue would be undiluted bitterness -- which was one additional reason, beyond revulsion at his abuse of his high office, that some of us thought Clinton should have resigned last August, when he admitted having lied to the American people.
But that moment has passed into history, along with all the times earlier in 1998 when he could have dealt with his situation in a straightforward way. Now we are left with a vexing case.
The hours of argument by the opposing attorneys brought about one significant change. Polls say the public is convinced Clinton lied to the Kenneth Starr grand jury -- probably because they saw him lie to them in his famous, finger-wagging claim he had not had sex with "that woman." But Clinton's lawyers have created a robust legal defense against perjury. That impeachment count will have to be decided on the existing record -- the transcripts and videotapes -- because Clinton is unlikely to testify even if invited by the Senate and Lewinsky is not a witness on whom any sensible person would rely.
But the second charge, the obstruction of justice count, has emerged as a more substantial indictment than it first appeared. The evidence is "circumstantial," as Rep. Asa Hutchinson, who presented the case to the Senate, acknowledged. But the narrative he put together was one the White House lawyers never entirely managed to erase.
The central -- and equivocal -- steps in that narrative all involve Betty Currie. She was Lewinsky's inside ally, the one who retrieved and hid the president's gifts to the former intern, the person who enlisted Vernon Jordan in the job search. She was the recipient of the president's comments -- We were never alone, right? She came on to me, right? -- that are the closest thing the prosecutors have to a smoking gun on this charge.
If Currie can convince the senators by her testimony that she was not used by the president in a coverup, I believe there are Republicans who would vote for acquittal. If her testimony -- when confronted with evidence such as her cell-phone call to Lewinsky, which was not known when Currie appeared before the grand jury -- casts doubt on the president's case, some Democrats might have second thoughts about protecting him.
Washington Post Writers Group