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Clinton Impeachment: Statement By Senator Robert Byrd

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 Robert Byrd was a Democratic senator from West Virginia. He served from 1959 until his death in 2010. At that time, he was the longest-serving senator in the history of the Congress.

Statement by Senator Robert Byrd (Democrat – West Virginia)

Mr. Chief Justice:

I think my country sinks beneath the yoke,

It weeps, it bleeds,

And each new day,

a gash is added to her wounds.

I am the only remaining Member of Congress who was here in 1954 when we added the words ‘under God’ to the Pledge of Allegiance. That was on June 7, 1954. One year from that day we added the words ‘In God We Trust’ to the currency and coin of this country. Those words were already on some of the coins. But I shall always be proud to have voted to add those words, ‘under God’ and ‘In God We Trust.’ They mean much to us today as we meet here.

This is my 47th year in Congress. I never dreamed that this day would ever come. And, until 6 months ago I couldn’t place myself in this position. I couldn’t imagine that, really, an American President was about to be impeached.

A few years ago, when my youngest grandson, who now is a Ph.D. in physics, was just a little tot, he came up to my den and looked around and said, ‘Papa, who made this mess?’

Now, Senators who made this mess? The mess was created at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. The House of Representatives didn’t make it. The U.S. Senate didn’t make it. But, nevertheless, we sit here today in judgment of a President.

Mr. Chief Justice, I thank you for presiding over this gathering with such grace and dignity. But the Chief Justice is not here because he wanted to be. He is not here because we asked him to come. He is here because the Constitution commanded that he be here. Senators are not here because you wanted to be here today.

We are here because the Constitution said that the Senate shall have the sole power to try all impeachments.

Soon we will vote and, hopefully, end this nightmarish time for the nation. Like so many Americans, I have been deeply torn on the matter of impeachment. I have been angry at the President, sickened that his behavior has hurt us all and led to this spectacle. I am sad for all of the actors in this national tragedy. His family and even the loyal people around him whom he betrayed–all have been hurt. All of the institutions of government–the presidency, the House of Representatives, the Senate, the system of justice and law, yes, even the media–all have been damaged by this unhappy and sorry chapter in our nation’s history.

The events of this last year have engendered so much disillusionment, distrust, bitter division and discord among the people of the United States. There can be, I fear, no happy ending, no final act that leads to a curtain call in which all the actors link hands and bow together amid great applause from the audience. No matter what happens here, many, many people will be left tasting only the bitter dregs of discontent.

I was proud of this Senate when, early last month, we gathered in the Old Senate Chamber to choose a path on which to proceed. We agreed on a Constitutional road map to follow during the early days of this trial. We followed that road map to the letter, considering a motion to dismiss the proceedings as well as one to provide for the deposition of witnesses. When there was a question or conflict, we decided the answer together. I commend Senator Daschle and Senator Lott for their untiring efforts to maintain bipartisanship.

Hamilton observed that impeachable offenses `are those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust . . . to injuries done immediately to the society itself.’ Hamilton also observed that the impeachment court could not be `tied down’ by strict rules, `either in the delineation of the offense by the prosecutors (the House of Representatives) or in the construction of it by the judges (the Senate).’

Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story said: `The jurisdiction is to be exercised over offenses, which are committed by public men in violation of their public trust and duties . . . injuries to the society in its political character,’ . . . `such kind of misdeeds . . . as peculiarly injure the commonwealth by the abuse of high offices of trust.’

Story observed that `no previous statute is necessary to authorize an impeachment for any official misconduct,’ . . . because `political offenses are so various and complex . . . so utterly incapable of being defined, or classified, that the task of positive legislation would be impracticable, if it were not almost absurd to attempt it.’

There are those–without my repeating the sordid details of what we have all heard over and over and over again–there are those who say that the President lied to protect his family. We all understand that. I have a feeling for that. But I can never forget his standing before the television cameras and saying to the American people, what he said: `Now I want you to listen to me. . .’ Don’t you Senators think that that was a bit overdone if the purpose was to protect his family?

`O, what a tangled web we weave when once we practice to deceive.’

Impeachment is a sword of Damocles that hangs over the heads of presidents, vice presidents, and all civil officers, always ready to drop should it become necessary. But, the impeachment of a President is uniquely and especially grave. We must recognize the gravity and awesomeness of it, and act in accordance with the oath we took to do `impartial justice’. We are the wielders of this weapon, responsible for using it sparingly and with prudence and wisdom.

This is only the second time that this nation has ever impeached a President. President Nixon resigned when it was made clear to him that, if impeached and tried, he would be convicted and removed from office. In that instance, both the country and the Congress were of the same mind that the President’s offenses merited his removal. It was not a partisan political impeachment; it was a bipartisan act. But where political partisanship becomes such an overwhelming factor as to put the country and the Congress at odds, as it has with this impeachment, something draws us back. We must be careful of the precedent we set. One political party, alone, should not be enough to bring Goliath’s great sword out of the Temple.

Regrettably, this process has become so partisan on both sides of the aisle and particularly in the House and was so tainted from the outset, that the American people have rebelled against it. The President lied to the American people, and, while a great majority of the people believe, as I do, that the President made false and misleading statements under oath, still, some two-thirds of the American people do not want the President removed from office. I do not think that this is just a reflection of the American people’s traditional bias for the underdog, but rather, of the much more basic American dislike of unfairness. Many people, perhaps even most people, do not believe that this process has been a fair process. They are further supported in their viewpoint by the polarization and partisanship so regrettably displayed in Congress.

Indeed, the atmosphere in Washington has become poisoned by politics and even by personal vendettas. As a result, perspective and a clear sense of proportion and balance have been lost by all too many people. As a byproduct of the venom, a process intended to be serious and sober has, instead, devolved into a virulent, off-color soap opera event, watched by an incredulous people grown weary of its content.

We have known for weeks that the votes were not here to convict this President. And yet some wanted to press on, in a desperate attempt to bring witnesses onto the Senate Floor. What a dreadful national spectacle that would have been! That is one reason why I offered a motion to dismiss the proceedings. Both the House Managers and the White House defense team had presented their case and had presented it well. We had gotten into the 16 hours of questioning by Senators, while all went along swimmingly for a while, the proceedings began to degenerate into a dueling press conference on both sides of the aisle. Moreover, the House Managers had already taken steps to begin the deposition of Monica Lewinsky, and the fact that they were doing this before the Senate had even voted to depose witnesses, led me to believe that it was time to call the whole thing off before the Senate slipped into the snake pit of bitter partisanship like the House of Representatives had done. Always with a weather eye open concerning the image of the Senate and its place in history, I made the motion to dismiss which had been provided for in the original agreement by 100 Senators on January 8, following the great bipartisan meeting we had all attended in the old Senate Chamber. Many people all around the country, as well as here within the beltway, misunderstood my reasons for moving to dismiss. I didn’t do that to protect Mr. Clinton, as some people have so mistakenly surmised. I knew that the votes were not here then to convict him, and we all know they are not here now. I just didn’t want the Senate to sink further into the mire. I did not want this body to damage its own quotient of public trust the way the House and the White House have diminished theirs.

I called for these proceedings to be dismissed, out of genuine concern for the divisive effect that an ultimately futile trial would have on the Senate and on the nation.

The House Articles charged the President with having committed perjury. This word `perjury’–lawyers can dance all around the head of a pin on that word. I won’t attempt to dance all around on the head of the pin on the word `perjury.’ The President plainly lied to the American people. Of course, that is not impeachable, but he also lied under oath in judicial proceedings.

Mr. Clinton’s offenses do, in my judgment, constitute an `abuse or violation of some public trust.’ Reasonable men and women can, of course, differ with my viewpoint. Even though the House of Representatives rejected the second article that came out of the Judiciary Committee, the evidence against Mr. Clinton shows that he willfully and knowingly and repeatedly gave false testimony under oath in judicial proceedings.

When the President of the United States, who has sworn to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and to see to it that the laws be faithfully executed, breaks the law himself by lying under oath, he undermines the system of justice and law on which this Republic–not this `democracy’–this Republic has its foundation.

In so doing, has the President not committed an offense in violation of the public trust? Does not this misconduct constitute an injury to the society and its political character? Does not such injury to the institutions of Government constitute an impeachable offense, a political high crime or high misdemeanor against the state? How would Washington vote? How would Hamilton vote? How would Madison or Mason or Gerry vote? My head and my heart tell me that their answer to these questions would be, `Yes.’

But the matter does not end there. The Constitution states, without equivocation, that the President, Vice President or any civil officer, when impeached and convicted, shall be removed from office. Hence, one cannot convict the President without removing him from office.

Should Mr. Clinton be removed from office for these impeachable offenses? This question gives me great pause. The answer is, as it was intended to be by the framers, a difficult calculus. This is without question the most difficult, wrenching and soul-searching vote that I have ever, ever cast in my 46 years in Congress. A vote to convict carries with it an automatic removal of the President from office. It is not a two-step process. Senators can’t vote maybe. The only vote that the Senator can cast, under the rules, as written, is a vote either to convict and remove or a vote to acquit.

So should I vote `Guilty’ when my name is called, believing that President Clinton’s offenses constitute high misdemeanors?

Should I vote guilty and vote to remove him from office? Some critics may say–some of my colleagues may say–they may ask, if you believe he is guilty, how can you not vote to remove him from office?

There is some logic to the question, but simple logic can point one way while wisdom may be in quite a different direction. It is not a popularity contest, of course. But remember our English forbears, who, on June 20, 1604, submitted to King James I the Apology of the Commons, in which they declared that their rights were not derived from kings, and that, `The voice of the people in things of their knowledge is [as] the voice of God.’ `Vox populi, vox Dei.’

The American people deeply believe in fairness, and they have come to view the President as having `been put upon’ for politically partisan reasons. They think that the House proceedings were unfair. History, too, will see it that way. The people believe that the Independent Counsel, Mr. Starr, had motivations which went beyond the duties strictly assigned to him.

In the end, the people’s perception of this entire matter as being driven by political agendas all around, and the resulting lack of support for the President’s removal, tip the scales for allowing this President to serve out the remaining 22 months of his term, as he was elected to do. When the people believe that we who have been entrusted with their proxies, have been motivated mostly or solely by political partisanship on a matter of such momentous import as the removal from office of a twice-elected President, wisdom dictates that we turn away from that dramatic step. To drop the sword of Damocles now, given the bitter political partisanship surrounding this entire matter, would only serve to further undermine a public trust that is too much damaged already. Therefore, I will reluctantly vote to acquit.

In 399 B.C., Socrates was convicted and sentenced by the Athenian jury to die. If only 30 votes on that Athenian jury had switched, Socrates would not have been convicted. If only twenty Senators–or less–on my side of the aisle who are expected to acquit, were to switch their votes, President Clinton would be convicted, and before this coming Sabbath day, he would be removed from the Oval Office. President Clinton will be acquitted by the Senate; yet, he will not be vindicated.

The crowds will still cheer the President of the United States, but the American people have been deeply hurt and, while they may forgive, they will not forget. The pages of history will not be expunged–ever!

Be assured that there will be no winners on this vote. The vote cast by every Senator will be criticized harshly by various individuals and sundry interest groups. Yet, it is well for the critics to remember that each Senator has not only taken a solemn oath to support and defend the Constitution, but also to do `impartial justice’ to Mr. Clinton and to the nation, `So help me, God’. The critics and the cynics have not taken that oath; only Senators have done so. Carrying out that oath has not been easy. That oath does not say anything about political party; politics should have nothing to do with it.

The frenzy of pro-and-con opinions on every aspect of this case emanating from every conceivable source in the land has made coming to any sort of `impartial’ conclusion akin to performing brain surgery in a noisy, rowdy football stadium. It will be easy for the cynics and the critics who do not have to vote, to stand on the sidelines and berate us. But only those of us who have to cast the votes will bear the judgment of history.

Mr. Chief Justice, none of us knows whether the attitudes of the American people will take a different turn after this trial is over and this drab chapter is closed. `Fame is a vapor; popularity an accident; riches take wings; those who cheer today may curse tomorrow; only one thing endures–character!’ It is the character of the Senate that will count. And while the politics of destruction may be satisfying to some, the rubble of political ruin provides a dangerous and unstable foundation for the nation.

And yet we must move ahead. The nation is faced with potential dangers abroad. No one can foresee what will happen in Russia or in North Korea or in Kosovo or in Iraq. To remove Mr. Clinton at this time could create an unstable condition for our nation in the face of unforeseen and potentially dangerous happenings overseas.

Preceding Senators have sounded the clarion note of separation of powers! I have sounded that same trumpet many times when the line item veto was before the Senate, but to no avail. Some of the voices that have rung throughout this chamber in these deliberations, were curiously still on that occasion. The Supreme Court of the United States saved the Constitution and struck that law down. But the Supreme Court has no voice in the decision that confronts the Senate at this hour. It is for the Senate alone to make. When these Senate doors are flung open, we must hope that the vote that follows will strengthen, not weaken, our nation.

Let there be no preening and posturing and gloating on the White House lawn this time when the voting is over and done. The House of Representatives has already inflicted upon the President the greatest censure, the greatest condemnation, that the House can inflict upon any President. And it is called impeachment! That was an indelible judgment which can never be withdrawn. It will run throughout the pages of history and its deep stain can never be eradicated from the eyes and memories of man. God can forgive us all, but history may not.

Within a few hours, the mechanics of this matter will finally be concluded. But it will not yet be over. For the nation must still digest the unpleasant residue of these events. Mr. Chief Justice, hatred is an ugly thing. It can seize the psyche and twist sound reasoning. I have seen it unleashed in all its mindless fury too many times in my own life. In a charged political atmosphere, it can destroy all in its path with the blind fury of a whirlwind. I hear its ominous rumble and see its destructive funnel on the horizon in our land today. I fear for our nation if its turbulent winds are not calmed and its storm clouds somehow dispersed. In the days to come, we must do all that we can to stop the feeding of its vengeful fires. Let us heap no more coals to fan the flames. Public passion has been aroused to a fever pitch, and we as leaders must come together to heal the open wounds, bind up the damaged trust, and, by our example, again unite our people. We would all be wise to cool the rhetoric.

For the common good, we must now put aside the bitterness that has infected our nation, and take up a new mantle. We have to work with this President and with each other, and with the members of the House of Representatives in dealing with the many pressing issues which face the nation. We must, each of us, resolve through our efforts to rebuild the lost confidence in our government institutions. We can begin by putting behind us the distrust and bitterness caused by this sorry episode, and search for common ground instead of shoring up the divisions that have eroded decency and good will and dimmed our collective vision. We must seek out our better natures and aspire to higher things. I hope that with the end of these proceedings, we can, together, crush the seeds of ugliness and enmity which have taken root in the sacred soil of our republic, and, instead, sow new respect for honestly differing views, bipartisanship, and simple kindness towards each other. We have much important work to do. And, in truth, it is long past time for us to move on.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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