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 TIME on politics Congressional Quarterly CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics - Storypage, with TIME and Congressional Quarterly

History in the making: Clinton on trial

By Carin Dessauer/CNN

WASHINGTON (January 7) -- Sen. Strom Thurmond slammed down the gavel. "A quorum is present," the Senate president pro tempore said. "The sergeant-at-arms will present the House ... take your seats or go to the cloak rooms."

It was 10 a.m. ET, Thursday, January 7, 1999. The historic Senate impeachment trial of President William Jefferson Clinton was under way.

Sen. Strom Thurmond calls the
Senate to order

As Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota huddled with some of their Senate colleagues on the floor of the Senate chamber, the 96-year-old Thurmond proclaimed, "The managers will be received and escorted to the well of the Senate."

And so the walk of the House managers began. It was something out of a movie, images that even the producers of "Wag the Dog" could not have predicted.

The last time the Senate held an impeachment trial of a president was 131 years ago. Democratic President Andrew Johnson was impeached by the House for going against the Congress and firing his secretary of war. The underlying issue was the Republican Party's opposition to Johnson's attempt to bring the South back into the Union after the Civil War. In 1868, Johnson was acquitted by just one vote.

The all white-male group of 13 House "managers," led by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde of Illinois, made its way from the House chamber through the halls of the Capitol to stand before the Senate. The walk looked like a funeral procession: everyone glum, walking slowly. The House members were all in dark suites. Even their aides were in dark clothes. No smiles would have been acceptable.

How times have changed. Halfway into their walk 100 bulbs flashed as cameras attempted to record the moment. One hundred thirty-one years ago there were only sketch artists. No still photographers. And certainly no television cameras. This time all the major television news networks were taking the proceedings live; their cameras had been in place since well before the sun came up. And Web sites were streaming live video.

The only close-to-real images we have of the proceedings 131 years ago are in the 1942 MGM movie "Tennessee Johnson." Still, Hollywood took liberties with history. The black-and-white movie depicts the Republicans as the villains and Johnson as the hero. In the movie, Johnson made a speech at his own trial. In reality that never happened.

But Thursday there was no questioning reality. The first day of the Senate impeachment trial was being recorded for the history books. Exactly one year ago, the central character in the sex-turned-impeachment drama, former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, signed an affidavit for the Paula Jones sexual harassment case denying a sexual relationship with Clinton.

As the House managers walked in and stood in the well of the Senate just after 10:05 a.m. ET, the sergeant-at-arms, James Ziglar said, "Here yea, here yea ... All persons remain silent under penalty of imprisonment."

Hyde reads the articles of impeachment

A solemn Hyde said, "With the permission of the Senate, I will now read the articles of impeachment." The chamber was silent. He read Article I:

Rep. Henry Hyde reads the
articles of impeachment

"...Resolved, that William Jefferson Clinton, president of the United States ... in violation of his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, has willfully corrupted and manipulated them judicial process of the United States for his personal gain and exoneration," Hyde read.

"In doing this, William Jefferson Clinton has undermined the integrity of his office, has brought disrepute on the presidency, has betrayed his trust as president, and has acted in a manner subversive of the rule of law and justice, to the manifest injury of the people of the United States," Hyde read before beginning Article II.

A little over five minutes later Hyde concluded, "William Jefferson Clinton, by such conduct, warrants impeachment and trial, and removal from office and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States. Passed the House of Representatives December 19, 1998 ..."

There was complete silence in the Senate chamber. Two minutes later Thurmond thanked Hyde and he and the House "managers" departed the chamber as stoically as they had entered. The Senate adjourned until 12:45 p.m. ET. The three broadcast networks went back to their regular programming, as CNN, MSNBC and FOX News continued covering the unfolding events.

CNN Washington Bureau Chief Frank Sesno, co-anchoring CNN's coverage, remarked to his colleagues about how a "few minutes of business" were so powerful. But the news continued.

Rehnquist, senators sworn in

At 12:35 p.m. ET, William Rehnquist, the chief justice of the United States, was dropped off in a black limousine at the entrance to the Senate side of the Capitol. Ten minutes later Lott asked for a quorum call to bring all of the senators back to the chamber.

All senators rose like a courtroom when the judge walks in. This time the judge was the highest judge in the nation. Six senators representing both parties escorted Rehnquist into the chamber.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist is
sworn in

Shortly after 1 p.m. ET Rehnquist, who is constitutionally designated to preside over the trial, was sworn in.

"I solemnly swear that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, now pending, I will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws: So help me God," Thurmond read to Rehnquist as he raised his right hand. The chief justice, clad in a long black robe, said, "I do."

The procedures for an impeachment trial have been in place since the 1800s, part laws of the colonies, part from Thomas Jefferson's manual. One difference between 1999 and the last trial in 1868 is that senators are now popularly elected.

The chief justice, asking all 100 senators to raise their right hand, administered the oath.

One by one, each senator was called up to sign the oath book. "Mr. Abraham, Mr. Ashcroft..." The names were read and the senators filed up to the well of the chamber to sign the book. Reflecting the tone of the day, almost all of the senators also wore dark attire. Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison was the lone exception, wearing a bright red suit. The blue carpet on the floor of the Senate chamber was the brightest and cheeriest thing in the room.

Keeping the pens each used to sign the book, the senators quietly filed back to their seats. They now had a momento from the historic day.

The visitors' gallery was nearly full except for about 80 empty seats in the tourist section during the administration of the oaths. The doorkeepers had rotated people in and out during the quorum call, and during the actual swearing in many of the tourist seats were vacant. Outside the chamber there was a long line of people waiting to get in.

Shortly after 1:40 p.m. Lott asked Rehnquist to recess the trial. There were no objections. The Senate was in recess.

The major broadcast networks again resumed their coverage, offering analysis. ABC's Chief White House Correspondent Sam Donaldson could not have summarized the day's event better. Noting that it had been said that the Lewinsky story was "all about sex ... Today you had the impression that it was all about the Constitution." Indeed, it was about process, but as history was being made, even this journalist felt it looked surreal!

 Investigating the President


Thursday January 7, 1999

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