TOPICS > Politics

Senator Robert Byrd

January 12, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: The impeachment trial, a schedule, though still incomplete, was released today. The substance phase begins Thursday afternoon with House managers presenting the case against the president. They’re expected to go until early that evening, a good part of Friday, and then end late Saturday afternoon. The following Tuesday, January 19th, the president’s lawyers begin his defense. They can take until Thursday to finish, with the Senators beginning their questioning of the two sides on Friday. The rest of the timing remains unclear.

But the issues are anything but unclear, and we look at them now with Senator Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia. He’s been in the U.S. Senate for 40 years and is widely regarded as its leading constitutional expert. Margaret Warner spoke with him this morning in his office.

MARGARET WARNER: Thanks for being with us, Senator Byrd. Are you satisfied that the ground rules the Senate has come up with for this impeachment trial are fair to both parties?


MARGARET WARNER: And your colleagues really credit you with having set the tone last Friday to turn them away from two competing partisan sets of ground rules to come up with something they could agree on. Why was it so important that it be a bipartisan agreement?

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: I think we need to take great pains to make it bipartisan, and that it be perceived by the people as being bipartisan. The meeting, as it took place in the old Supreme Court chamber in which the great debates were held by Webster and Clay, Calhoun, and Benton, and others. There was something very inspiring about that chamber in itself. And it was a time and a subject matter that we were discussing that was in keeping with the awesomeness and the inspiration that setting. And bipartisanship is so sorely needed in this matter that it was well that we did that, and I’ve been very grateful to our two leaders, Mr. Lott and Mr. Daschle, that we did that.

MARGARET WARNER: You reportedly warned your colleagues about sinking into what you called the black pit of, I think, partisan self-indulgence. Is that still a danger here?

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: It is. And it could be an increasing danger if we don’t take steps within ourselves to restrain ourselves from getting into the partisan political pit. This is a very serious and somber matter, and I need to keep in mind – each of my colleagues needs to keep in mind — that what we do here will be written large upon the pages of future history. And we want to be sure that the people of today and the people of a hundred years from today look upon this as having been a time in which the members of the Senate acquainted themselves well and reflected confidence and brought great pride upon this institution, because, after all, it is the bedrock of our Constitution of the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: When you were sitting in that meeting last Friday, which was closed to the press and the public, and all of you were talking with one another, did you hear a lot of open minds, or did you hear a lot of partisan minds?

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: I didn’t hear – as I try to reflect back on it in the light of your question – I didn’t hear any partisan minds. I can’t read other people’s minds. But I think it was something that was on everybody’s mind, but this is serious, and this is not a political party matter; this is a constitutional matter; and the Constitution foresaw no political parties. It’s going to be a hard thing to do, but we have to do it.

MARGARET WARNER: Can I ask you about a couple of issues that have come up – first of all witnesses – do you think – do you personally think witnesses will probably be needed?

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Presently I don’t think so because we have a massive record. We have sworn testimony. It hasn’t been subjected to cross-examination, but there’s a great amount of material there that we need to study, and I think we could reach a judgment on the articles in the final analysis without witnesses. I want to see us reach that judgment up or down on those articles.

MARGARET WARNER: On the articles, themselves, not on a motion to dismiss.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: I think we ought to reach a judgment on the articles. Naturally, that does – in my thinking – mean that we would not support a motion to dismiss prior to the vote on the articles, and that would be the conclusion. But there may be – as we listen to the House managers and we listen to the president’s defense – it may be apparent that there are some conflicts, there are some things that need to be cleared up, and I think we should leave an open mind for future consideration of having witnesses appear, and we can make that decision better after we hear both sides.

MARGARET WARNER: Another issue that’s come up some of your colleagues have raised is that though the Senate rules say – impeachment rules say that your debate and deliberation should be private – there are some members who say it should be public so that the American public can hear your debate. How do you feel about that?

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: There is something to be said for each viewpoint. However, in the interest of justice to all sides it’s important that we are able – that we be able to let our hair down, say very frankly to one another, just as we did down there in the joint session the other day, the joint caucus, be very frank, very candid, very candid, very candid, we will say things in a closed session that are really what we’re thinking; we won’t be careful to cut the corners here or there, and are less likely, really less likely to be very partisan if we’re in closed session than we maybe in open session. So in the interest of fulfilling the purpose of impeachment trials, we ought to be at liberty and feel that we can speak what we think, and it is only that way, I believe, in which we will really hammer out a fair and just decision that will reflect pride on the institution.

MARGARET WARNER: You said late last year at some point to the White House, “Do not tamper with this jury.” Does that still apply? Are you saying it’s improper? Would it be improper for the White House or its lawyers or representatives to contact Senators during the course of this trial outside the courtroom, outside the chamber?

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: At the time that we were preparing to try what we felt was going to be an impeachment of Mr. Nixon, President Nixon, I said the same thing. I said it could be counterproductive, and I am still of that opinion.

MARGARET WARNER: And what do you mean by that exactly? Do you mean the president shouldn’t have contact with Senators, or simply that they shouldn’t be lobbying on the merits of the case?

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Well, it’s one of those things that we know it when we see it. And I personally would take great offense if I thought that either side was trying to persuade me. I feel I have a mind. It may not be the mind of an Einstein, but I know what this is all about. And I will listen to the witnesses; I’ll listen to the president’s defense; and I’ll make up my own mind. For the White House or the House managers to give the appearance that they’re trying to influence me in any way – directly or indirectly – is not a good thing for them to do.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think it’s appropriate once the trial starts for Senators who will be sitting silently all day to then go outside and speak to television cameras about their impressions of what happened that day in the chamber?

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Well, I don’t think that Senators should put a gag over their mouths in this matter. I think we have to be careful what we say. It’s perfectly all right for you and me today to be sitting and talking about procedures and so on. But what I particularly want to be on guard against — and what I think we should all be on guard against — is saying something with respect to the final judgment that I expect to make, or saying something that leaves the impression that I am at this point, that I have my mind fully made up as to how I’m going to vote – because I don’t have. And so that’s I think what we have to guard against.

MARGARET WARNER: Did you ever think when the story broke a year ago that it would come to this?

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: No, I did not. I didn’t think things ever would come to this point. But it is here we have to fulfill our duty under the Constitution. This is a tremendous power to be placed into the hands of senators who are elected by the people. And we should draw back and take a look at this and try to do it from the standpoint of the framers and that when all is said and done here – if they could watch us – could come back afterwards and see the work we’ve done, that they would be proud of us, and each of us too should try to keep himself restrained so that in the final analysis he can glory in the fact that his grandson need not be ashamed of how he comported himself in this matter that is so vital to the liberties of the people.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, thank you very much, Senator Byrd. Thanks for being with us.