Saturday's votes will be long noted


BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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It is easy to believe our local members of Congress when we hear them say they never expected that, when we sent them to Washington, they would end up making history by voting on the impeachment of a president.

But maybe they should have expected it.

They run for Congress for a variety of reasons — to cut taxes, to reduce government, to make government work for people, to tend to the routine business of government, and to make their own marks and possibly move up the political ladder.

But, given the environment they work in, they can hardly fail to notice that they go to work every day in a place where much of this nation's history has been made. They walk the halls where Calhoun and Webster walked, sit in the chamber where FDR said that Dec. 7 is a date which will live in infamy, climb the steps where Lincoln claimed there would be malice toward none, charity for all.

Surely, it must sink in that, from time to time, they will be called on to pull their high-tech plastic vote cards out of their breast pockets and cast a ballot that will be remembered beyond the next election cycle, one that will make history, for good or ill.

It has happened again, with Saturday's vote on the impeachment of Bill Clinton, when a Republican House majority, with very few defections on either side, passed two of four articles of impeachment and sent them to the Senate for only the second Senate trial of a president in the nation's history.

Suddenly, for people like Steve Chabot, the Republican from Cincinnati, or Ted Strickland, the Democrat from Lucasville, the storefront law office in Westwood and the Methodist minister's study in Scioto County where they began their political careers must have seemed very far away indeed.

Mr. Chabot and Mr. Strickland lined up on opposite sides of the issue. The Republican — who had the additional burden of being a member of the House Judiciary Committee that reported out the four articles — strongly supported the impeachment; the Democrat just as strongly opposed the articles.

Among the Tristate delegation, the votes on impeachment fell strictly along party lines. Republicans Chabot, Jim Bunning and Rob Portman were in favor (though Mr. Portman voted against impeachment on one article). Democrats Mr. Strickland and Lee Hamilton opposed.

All of them, along with their colleagues, have been through a wrenching, angry ordeal that will not end with their votes.

In this debate, the charity Lincoln spoke of has been in short supply; malice not so rare.

Saturday, there were many, on both sides of the aisle, who were convinced that American politics had never before been so mean-spirited, so vitriolic, so divisive as in the 11 months since the president's indiscretions with a nondescript White House intern exploded in public.

Well, at least not since the last House vote on impeachment, 130 years ago.

Impeachment is a partisan and bipartisan process, at the same time. It happens because members of Congress of one party undertake to remove the president of another party. It is unlikely to succeed, though, unless members of the president's party decide the other side is right.

A generation ago, Richard Nixon would not have had articles of impeachment voted against him in the House Judiciary Committee without fellow Republicans such as Tom Railsback, Lawrence Hogan and William Cohen (who is now Mr. Clinton's defense secretary) making the agonizing decision to vote against their president.

And it was not until three Republican congressional leaders — Barry Goldwater, Hugh Scott and John Rhodes — went to the White House and told him his chances of surviving were nil that Nixon decided to move on and spare the country a Senate trial. Nothing like that is likely to happen in this case.

The Tristate members who cast their votes Saturday made history and will go about their routine business. They could not be blamed this morning if they saw themselves as statesmen,no matter which way they voted.

But they are, in fact, politicians, and someday most of them will go before voters again.

For Mr. Chabot, the impeachment ordeal will continue — he was named Saturday to be one of the Republican House members who will manage the case against the president in the Senate trial.

Mr. Hamilton, the Indiana Democrat, is retiring after 34 years in the House. It was his final vote; there will be no more elections for him.

There will be for Mr. Portman and Mr. Strickland, but both know their districts well and will have no trouble justifying their votes to the people who put them there.

The jury is still out on Mr. Bunning, because he will be a juror. Next month, he takes a seat in the Senate and will have a vote in deciding Mr. Clinton's fate.

All of them will have to wait for the verdict of history to tell who was right and who was wrong. But all of them will have to let the voters write the first draft.

Howard Wilkinson's column appears Sundays. He can be reached at 768-8388, or e-mail him at hwilkinson@enquirer.com