After impeachment

Mental rehashes: What would Madison have thought?

For five weeks and a day, including three Saturdays, I sat with my National Public Radio colleagues, Neal Conan and Nina Totenberg, crammed into a narrow space in a Senate office building, reporting on the impeachment trial and yearning for the day when my involuntary servitude would be over.

When that time came two weeks ago with the 50-50 vote on the second article of impeachment, we gave our final assessments, then stood up, shook hands - reporters, assistants, technicians - and I headed toward the door.

Suddenly an unaccountable feeling seized me that I had experienced once before - in 1945, when I was discharged from the Army.

Although I had hated every minute of living under military discipline, it had spared me the need to make decisions. So, looking at my discharge papers, I felt suddenly lost. As I eventually adjusted to civilian life, so I am adjusting myself to life after impeachment. But not without some looking back and wondering about some of it.

I remember, for example, how often I had heard senators, silent in the chamber and loquacious in the corridors, vow to consult only conscience and Constitution and not be swayed by opinion polls or constituent pressures. Solemnly, they affirmed that their responsibility was to render justice, not yielding to the tides of public emotion.

No one said it better than that guardian of the Constitution, Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia. In a diary that he later shared with CBS television, he wrote on Jan. 5: "We take an oath, so help me God, to do impartial justice." And so, having determined to his own satisfaction that President Clinton was guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors, he rose early on Sunday, Jan. 24, went up to his den and wrote a speech supporting the president's removal from office. In the afternoon, he wrote, he came down for coffee with his wife, Irma, and read from the Bible, as is their Sunday custom.

"Suddenly," he wrote, "I closed the Bible and said to Irma, 'I changed my mind.'" With that, he went back upstairs and wrote a second speech, this one favoring acquittal.

Why the sudden reversal? Senator Byrd said he still believed Mr. Clinton to be guilty, but "senators carry the proxies of the people.

"Senators must listen to what Americans are saying."

There is a great irony here. Was he not obligated to close his ears to vox populi?

Did James Madison not write that popular emotion must be tempered by the "chosen body of citizens," the Congress?

But, as Stanford law professor Kathleen Sullivan wrote in a penetrating article in The New York Times, what happened this time was that it was Congress where the passions ran, and it was the populace that exercised a tempering influence on the excitable pack on Capitol Hill.

I don't know what James Madison would make of this, but it was, in effect, the multitude he did not trust that stepped in to tell the Congress to cool it and thus saved Clinton from removal and denial of any future public service.

*Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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