The impeachment trial of President Clinton has entered a new phase: The principals no longer are muscling for advantage. Now they're auditioning for history. Indeed, the impeachment impasse is no longer a struggle between conflicting views of this week's political wisdom. It's a struggle between conflicting views of what history will say in the next century.
On one side is the fear that history will say that an American Congress, rocking softly to the lullaby of a strong economy, averted its eyes from repugnant behavior in the White House, a string of lies to cover it up, and then presidential defiance of the most basic values of honesty.
On the other side is the fear that history will say that an American Congress, bending to the temper of these tabloid times, contributed to the cheapening of national public life by focusing so intently on a president's personal failings that it was blind to his public successes.
One side, often accused of worrying primarily about economic growth and profits, argues that refusing to convict the president would suggest that the nation values money over values. The other side, often accused of celebrating values over profits, argues that the nation's strong economy and healthy report card on crime demonstrate the president is succeeding in the job he was elected to do.
These arguments, most of all, are Washington politicians' way of trying to figure out how what they do in the next several days will be viewed in the next several decades.
Clinton has had an eye on history from the very start. In his early days in the White House, he wandered from room to room, stared at the portraits, consulted biographers and summoned historians to the executive mansion. He sized himself up against Grover Cleveland and William McKinley, finally setting his sights upon an early 20th century giant, Theodore Roosevelt.
Now it is time for Congress, which is accustomed to looking only at the next election cycle, to think about history. Every House member in last month's proceedings to impeach the president will be marked forever by that vote. The House managers now pressing the Senate to call witnesses in the Clinton trial will be remembered vividly in history. And all the senators, from the merest newcomer to the oldest stalwart, know that this one vote will help define their careers.
That is why the capital novella of Clinton's impeachment makes for such frustrating reading (and, by the way, frustrating writing, too). The conclusion is now relatively clear; the opponents of the president do not have the votes to remove Clinton from office. But how the lawmakers get from the middle of the trial, where they are now, to the end, which they cannot avoid forever, still is not clear.
Republicans in the Senate do not want to undercut their House colleagues who poured their hearts and honor into impeaching the president and then pressing their case in the Senate chamber. Much of the Republican posturing of the past week has less to do with embarrassing Clinton than it has with avoiding embarrassment for the House Republicans.
Republicans also are eager to preserve their own seats. They worry about new splits in their own party, already rent between economic conservatives and social conservatives. But they also know that the public thinks the whole matter has gone on far too long.
That's the politics. Now the history.
"You know why we're doing this?" Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois said at the House managers' meeting that resulted in Monica S. Lewinsky's latest flight to Washington. "We're doing this for our children, for our families, for future generations." His Democratic opponents think the same thing.
But playing for history is a dangerous game, because no person is fixed in history. Andrew Johnson, the only other American president to be impeached, was vilified at the end of the 19th century. But by the 1930s, the villains became the radical Republicans who sought so desperately to remove the president. Some historians who celebrate presidential independence and leadership have embraced Johnson. Some who celebrate the expansion of civil rights have pilloried him. But nobody has forgotten him.
Bill Clinton, so worried about being ignored by history, can be sure that he will not be forgotten.