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See trial through to the bitter, judicial end


I remember the ad very well. A hulk of a professional athlete, one of basketball’s bad boys but a talented and popular player, slam-dunked a half-dozen balls, then looked right into the camera with all the children of America watching and said, “I’m nobody’s role model.” America winced, and the ad was withdrawn, but not before it caused us to hold a discussion about the relationship between character and professional responsibilities.

I never expected to hear the same kind of discussion about the presidency of the United States. It’s been a hard year: How do we deal with behavior in the Oval Office that is not admirable, not a role-model for anybody, but also not necessarily destructive of the Constitution of the United States?

The nice thing about what’s being called the most important -- and the most partisan -- trial of the century is that it has brought out the nonpartisan part of me. Despite the opinions of all the Democrats in the world I respect -- my father who spelled Democrat “R-o-o-s-e-v-e-l-t,” my closest friends in the community and the last family I had a holiday dinner with -- I am convinced that the Senate needs to go all the way with the trial of Bill Clinton.

Do I believe that the whole situation reeks of politics? I do. Do I believe that the case, the evidence, the impeachment process is tainted? I do. Do I believe that the American people have no interest in the whole thing? I do.

But I also believe we ought to see the whole thing through to the bitter, judicial end. I am opposed to censure. I am open to witnesses. I want a verdict, not a deal.

Before you use this column to wrap the garbage, at least hear the reasons that have taken me so far from home.

My problem is that if this trial is aborted, I will never know who told the bigger lies: the president, the special prosecutor, the House of Representatives or the Senate itself.

If we have a special prosecutor who has built a case against the president of the United States out of personal pique or on inadmissible evidence and a bank of lawyers have supported it, shame on the legal profession.

If we went through an entire impeachment process in the House of Representatives that everyone knew had no substance, then the process itself was a lie. Shame on the House of Representatives.

If the whole smear was done with a wink, with the back-room certainty that the Senate would drop the case once they got it but that the goal of humiliating, besmirching an otherwise effective president would have been accomplished, shame on the Senate.

If perjury, scandal and cheap sex in the tabernacle of the civil religion are not, in the mind of the body politic, issues important enough to be weighed for their effect on the office of the presidency, shame on the American public. Then the public, too, would be at fault.

If the presidency, not the president, is to be preserved, we need to bring the whole question to the cold, hard bar of the law. It is not a matter of whether sex is a personal peccadillo. It is not a matter of whether or not the economy is in good shape. It is a matter of political credibility and legal justice. Or are we all lying about what we want, what we hope for, what we expect, what we value?

If this is a constitutional issue, we need to face it, disturbing as the very thought may be. If this is not a constitutional, an impeachable issue, then we need to vindicate the man, not harass him. For Clinton’s sake? No, for ours. Clinton will leave the presidency, but the presidency will remain. The question is, in what condition?

Andrew Johnson was impeached but not convicted. His accusers are the ones whom history has most excoriated, not himself. The vindication saved that president and the presidency as well.

Impeachment, in other words, is not the worst thing that can happen to a president. But the notion that a deal was made to dismiss the charges may well be. It applauds legal debauchery, it laughs at the House of Representatives, it flashes a knowing grin at the public and it reduces the government to the level of political vaudeville.

The trial is not really about Clinton but about us. For that reason the Senate needs to see the job through.

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, author and lecturer, lives in Erie, Pa.

National Catholic Reporter, January 29, 1999