On a Saturday in late December of 1998, the House of Representatives had just voted to impeach the president of the United States for the second time in the history of the republic.
President Andrew Johnson was the first U.S. leader so sanctioned by the House. He ran afoul of Congress in 1868 amid Reconstruction. The House cited Johnson with 11 articles of impeachment before sending the indictment to the Senate for trial.
In 1998, the House went after President Bill Clinton following his affair with Monica Lewinsky. The lower chamber impeached him on two charges: perjury and obstruction of justice but rejected two other impeachment articles dealing with lying and abuse of power.
Late that afternoon, House Democrats then gathered on the South Lawn of the White House -- a show of support to their beleaguered president -- as he was about to make a short statement.
“I have accepted responsibility for what I did wrong in my personal life and I have invited members of Congress to work with us to find a reasonable, bipartisan and proportionate response,” Clinton said. “That approach was rejected today by Republicans in the House. But I hope it will be embraced in the Senate.”
For now, President Clinton’s future was out of the House’s hands. It was up to the Senate to try to either convict or acquit him.
Conviction would prompt removal of the president from office - an unprecedented, nearly extra-constitutional political dimension. More than 130 years before, Johnson survived his Senate trial by a singular vote.
Clinton’s comments that day on the South Lawn alluded to his transgressions, which sparked the entire contretemps: Sexual liaisons with Lewinsky, the former White House intern. Lewd discussions about cigars. A stained blue dress. The president of the United States at one point angrily wagging his finger, declaring “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”
Clinton later altered his story as it was revealed they engaged in oral sex. The president said those actions were “not appropriate.”
Congressional Republicans were clear not to challenge Mr. Clinton over his sexual indiscretions – but instead, fought him on legal issues. Still, much of that was lost on the public – perceiving the GOP efforts as focusing on the President’s moral failings.
This is why the president spoke about what was wrong in his “personal life.” And this is why former Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., focused on the president’s peccadillos when called in to deliver a closing argument in Clinton’s Senate trial in January 1999.
Bumpers, a four-term Arkansas senator and former governor died Saturday at age 90. Some think it was Bumpers oratory that took the question of convicting the president off the table.
“H.L. Mencken said one time, ‘When you hear somebody say, this is not about money -- it’s about money,’ ” thundered Bumpers on the Senate floor in defense of the chief executive. “And when you hear somebody say, ‘This is not about sex,’ -- it’s about sex.”
Bumpers had just retired from the Senate after four terms, succeeded by Sen. Blanche Lincoln, another Arkansas Democrat, like Clinton.
Bumpers beat the legendary Sen. William Fulbright in the Democratic primary in 1974 and never looked back. Though he was never a chairman of a major Senate committee, Bumpers was one of the most-underestimated debaters in either body of Congress.
Clinton’s defense team knew this. And in Bumpers, this wasn’t just calling in some character witness to testify about the individual. This was a man who served in the Senate -- amid the jurors who would determine Bill Clinton’s fate. This was a senator from Arkansas -- Clinton’s home state. Bumpers was someone who the president spoke with by phone almost daily early in his administration.
And with that quote that it “wasn’t about sex” -- Bumpers cut directly to the weak spot in the case the GOP House prosecutors presented to the Senate. Bumpers stated it was about sex. Not about perjury or abuse of power or any of that.
The Clinton camp knew it had the perfect person in Bumpers to make that case and persuade senators that the GOP overplayed its hand.
“Pick your own adjective to describe the president's conduct,” Bumpers continued. “Here are some that I would use: indefensible, outrageous, unforgivable, shameless. I promise you the president would not contest any of those or any others.”
Bumpers then turned the table on Clinton’s GOP accusers, reeling from just having lost then-House Speaker-designate Bob Livingston, R-La., to a sex scandal -- replacing him with then-Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
“The House managers have said shame and embarrassment is no excuse for lying. Well, the question about lying, that's your decision. But I can tell you, you put yourself in his position, and you've already had this big moral lapse, as to what you would do. We are -- none of us are perfect. Sure, you say, he should have thought of all that beforehand. And indeed he should. Just as Adam and Eve should have. Just as you and you and you and you, and millions of other people who have been caught in similar circumstances should have thought of it before. And I say none of us are perfect,” Bumpers said.
He spoke of polls, describing President Clinton’s approval rating at 76 percent. Sixty-five percent didn’t want Clinton yanked out of office. The former senator then quoted global leaders -- who applauded Clinton’s foreign policy achievements. A calming war in Bosnia. Negotiations between India and Pakistan. Peace in Northern Ireland. An expansion of NATO.
Bumpers questioned, in Socratic detail, how House Republicans arrived at a perjury charge. He indicated that Clinton’s denial of the affair had not come under oath. He asserted that almost anyone guilty of infidelity would have tried to cover things up.
“It’s wanting to win too badly,” Bumpers said of the Republican’s tactics.
Bumpers spoke of the thousands of divorces he handled as a small-town lawyer in Arkansas.
“In all those divorce cases, I would guess that in 80 percent of the contested cases, perjury was committed,” he continued. “And you know what it was about? Sex. Extramarital affairs. But there's a very big difference in perjury about a marital infidelity in a divorce case and perjury about whether I bought the murder weapon or whether I concealed the murder weapon or not.
“And to charge somebody with the first and punish them as though it were the second stands … our sense of justice on its head. There's a total lack of proportionality, a total lack of balance in this thing. The charge and the punishment are totally out of sync.”
The former senator then spoke of how the Founders debated the Constitution’s impeachment clause for four months. They dropped language from the Constitution that focused on “maladministration” and “malpractice,” before finally settling on “treason, bribery and corruption.”
George Mason, who ultimately didn’t sign the Constitution, suggested adding “high crimes and misdemeanors,” which was adopted.
“Nobody has suggested that Bill Clinton committed a political crime against the state. So, colleagues, if you honor the Constitution, you must look at the history of the Constitution and how we got to the impeachment clause. And if you do that and you do that honestly according to the oath you took, you cannot. You can censure Bill Clinton. You can hand him over to the prosecutor for him to be prosecuted, But you cannot convict him. And you cannot indulge yourselves the luxury or the right to ignore this history,” Bumpers said.
Some thought Bumpers might run for president in 1984 and 1988. He didn’t. But even back then, Bumpers kept an eye on Clinton. In a diary entry from the early 1980s about the Clintons, during the years Bill was the Arkansas governor, Bumpers described him and wife Hillary Clinton as “the most manic obsessed people I have ever known in my life.” And he called the future president “a truly tragic figure.”
But over the years, the relationship improved. Bumpers backed Bill Clinton for president from the start. He campaigned for Clinton in New Hampshire in 1992 even as he ran for his final term in the Senate -- against a little-known Baptist minister named Mike Huckabee.
“The American people are now and for some time have been asking to be allowed a good night's sleep. They're asking for an end to this nightmare. It is a legitimate request,” Bumpers said in his Senate speech.
It takes a two-thirds vote in the Senate to convict the president. Fifty senators voted to convict Clinton on the obstruction of justice charge. Just 45 senators voted to toss him out on the perjury charge.
The Senate ultimately rejected the House’s impeachment petitions.
Sixty-seven yeas is a high bar to clear in the U.S. Senate. It’s doubtful the upper chamber could have marshaled that many votes on those impeachment articles.
But many political observers credit the late Dale Bumpers and his impassioned speech with helping to convince his Senate colleagues to acquit the president of the United States.