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Clinton Impeachment: Statement By Senator Ron Wyden

The following is a statement from the Senate’s closed deliberations on the Articles of Impeachment against President Clinton, excerpts of which senators were allowed to publish in the Congressional Record for Friday, February 12, 1999.

Senator Ron Wyden is a Democratic senator from Oregon. He assumed office in 1996.

Statement by Senator Ron Wyden (Democrat – Oregon)

Mr. Chief Justice, our leaders, Senators Lott and Daschle, my colleagues, my friends.

I doubt that I will ever know what the President of the United States was up to when he lied to Betty Currie about the nature of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Did the President lie to Ms. Currie because he didn’t want her to know the truth about the affair? Did the President lie because he wanted her to defend him to the White House staff? Did the President lie because he wanted her to repeat those lies under oath? I doubt that I am ever going to get the real answer to those questions.

But I believe I do know why it has been excruciatingly difficult for the U.S. Senate to get to the bottom of the Currie controversy and several others that we have been wrestling with for weeks now. If I might paraphrase a legal doctrine, this impeachment has become the fruit of a poisonous tree. This impeachment is a deadly plant that has flowered in the toxic soil of partisanship.

Given the highly contentious nature of the charges against the President, there is no question in my mind that the congressional leadership should have first established a bipartisan process for investigating the serious allegations.

It is my view that had the Founding Fathers decided that the first step in the impeachment process would be taken by the U.S. Senate, I, Senator Lott and Senator Daschle would have produced a truly bipartisan inquiry, and we would have been able to find common ground on several of the key issues. I don’t think it would have produced a string of 100-0 votes, but I believe that we would have had a more bipartisan result than what we are going to see at the end of these deliberations. But this process began elsewhere. And I only want to make one comment about the House.

In my view, the House didn’t even try to locate the common ground. And I use that word ‘try’ specifically because it is one thing to work your head off and not be able to bring people together. We have all been there. But that is not what went on in the House. They didn’t even try to come together. It has been well documented, for example, that the Speaker of the House and the House minority leader went for months at a time without even talking to each other. I am not going to assign fault to one or the other, but the fact is that by the end of last year, our two major political parties were at war with each other over the allegations against the President.

This toxic partisanship is not, in my view, what public service is all about. I am a Democrat, for good reasons; and there are sincere, important differences of philosophy on issues between Senators on the respective sides. But I have always felt doing what is right is more important than adhering to party dogma, and that is what I wanted to do in this matter.

The framers of the Constitution tried to give us a heads-up, a warning about how the impeachment process could become unduly partisan.

Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 65, said that the types of crimes for which impeachment is the appropriate remedy are ‘political.’ And he added, ‘the prosecution of them, for this reason, will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties, more or less friendly, or inimical, to the accused.’

Thomas Jefferson, after almost having been kept from office in a partisan maneuver to replace him with Aaron Burr, set a deeply moving tone for looking beyond partisan confrontation in his first inaugural address.

My colleagues and friends, it doesn’t have to be all partisan all the time. There is an alternative to slash-and-burn Government. And it is a topic, I regret to say, that I know a fair amount about.

I won a very, very bitter Senate campaign against a man I am proud to call my friend, my colleague, Senator Gordon Smith. Our part of the country had never seen a campaign so relentlessly negative. The whole country was watching the race to succeed Bob Packwood, but our campaign didn’t enlighten very many people. It brought out the worst in us. I was so disgusted with it and what I had become, that with only a few short weeks to go in the campaign I got rid of all my ads and basically started over.

Shortly after Senator Smith won his election, we got together and talked about how we regretted the bitter nature of the campaign and what we had become. We decided from that point on we would put the greater good, that of the people of Oregon, before any differences we might have. The New York Times has started to call us the ‘odd couple’–a Jew from the city, a Mormon from the country. What kind of odds would you have given for that kind of relationship? But it works.

The votes that we are going to cast now are in little doubt. So I wish to express my concern that as the Senate completes its work on impeachment that we have the ability to come back and tackle our other constitutional responsibilities in a bipartisan fashion.

The public is tired of us being at each other’s throats. They are tired of beltway politics that places toxic partisanship over the public interest. Gordon Smith and I found out the hard way, and they are right.

Perhaps even at this late hour we can find our way to a little miracle and wrap up this impeachment debate through a bipartisan statement that makes it clear that each of us finds the President’s conduct repugnant. If we miss that chance, let’s keep looking for every possible opportunity to come together.

Senator Frist and I have a bipartisan education bill. No speeches about that now, but every Governor in the country is for it. My point is that this impeachment process has brought us to a critical moment in our history. We can either rise to the occasion by forging new and healthier ways to deal with our differences, or we can sink from the collective weight of a partisan mess that we have all helped to create.

In arriving at my decision in this case, I kept coming back to the reality that Congress has not once removed a President, not once in 211 years. The Constitution places the burden for such a grave step very high. Such a showing is not only to protect our Nation from partisan prosecution, but also to impose safeguards that are necessary, given the severity of the potential punishment–a political death penalty, as House Manager Lindsey Graham said.

When I say ‘punishment,’ I am not only referring to the punishment imposed on the President, but in particular to the destructive impact of such an action to our Nation as a whole. The House managers did not, in my view, prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. In my opinion, they didn’t get particularly close.

As stated earlier, I do find the President’s lying to Betty Currie about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky to be very, very disturbing. The House managers have a hunch that the President’s intent was criminal. To borrow from House Manager Graham, they think it is likely he was up to no good. My friends, hunches are not impeachable, nor should they be. If the evidence required to convict a President of the United States in an impeachment trial is allowed to be less than that required in a shoplifting trial, the constitutional foundation for the Presidency will disintegrate before our very eyes. That is something that a few future Presidents in this body ought to consider for just a moment.

Today I am going to vote to acquit on both counts. But I don’t want that to be my final contribution today.

I had a lot of farfetched dreams as a boy, but never once did I dream that I could serve with all of you on the floor of the U.S. Senate. My parents fled Nazi Germany, and not all of my family got out. We lost family in Hitler’s brutal Kristallnacht. So you might understand how I grew up revering the greatness of America and the institutions of our democracy.

I will tell you, I never, ever believed that some skinny fellow with modest oratorical skills and a face for radio–(laughter)–could have a chance to serve in the United States Senate.

What I want to be able to tell my grandchildren is that this was the point in American history where we drew a line in the sand and said ‘no more’ to the excessive partisanship. A time when we said ‘no more’ to a brand of politics that each of us knows is bringing out the worst in good people. We have good leaders in the U.S. Senate–in Trent Lott, in Tom Daschle–who have shown, in the last month, just how hard they are willing to work to bring us together.

My friends, let the toxic partisanship end. Let it end here, and let it end now.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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