In the End, the Political Center Held

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WASHINGTON: Exit stage quickly. The impeachment of President Bill Clinton ended in a pardon of sorts, with the Senate eager to condemn Clinton's behavior but clearly unwilling to remove him for it. Article I, perjury, fell by a 55-45 vote. Article II, obstruction of justice, split the Senate 50-50. The Year of the Thong is now ended, on President's Day, and from the Beltway to the Badlands it would be hard to find anyone unhappy to hear it. "It has not been an edifying spectacle," says TIME White House correspondent Jay Branegan. But in the Senate, the scandal's last and most dignified stop, there were some signs that American government, to borrow a phrase from the stock market, was pulling back from its partisan lows.

Special Report Party leaders Trent Lott and Tom Daschle got deserved kudos from Chief Justice Rehnquist for their graceful wrangling -- and, when appropriate, lack thereof -- of their parties and the factions that divide each. Lott, who found a public geniality for this trial heretofore unseen, awarded Rehnquist a "golden gavel" for his five weeks of faux-grumpy attention. Even the House managers, who had annoyed so many and convinced so few, got a parting gift of their own -- the 50-50 tie on Article II. As the credits rolled, censure gasped a little, then died, with Phil Gramm throwing his parliamentary weight around to ensure that the feel-good compromise (which less than 60 senators actually wanted) would not be the conclusion to this saga. Who needs it? This ending -- in which the senators agreed to disagree with dignity, and as a whole simply found that the Constitution's severest punishment didn't fit this crime -- is happy enough.

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