WASHINGTON — Although the outcome was clear long before the final roll call, Friday’s historic impeachment vote was more than an exercise in statesmanship for the Tar Heel state’s senators.

Guilty, said Sen. Jesse Helms, a Republican veteran of 26 years.

Not guilty, said Sen. John Edwards, a Democratic lawmaker a fraction as long as President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky has dominated the news.

The Senate jury acquitted the president on one count of perjury and one count of obstruction of justice. It was a decision that each senator believed would forever mark his place in the history books, a vote most memorable.

“I wasn’t just involved in this trial,” said Edwards, who was chosen by Senate Democratic leadership to preside over the Lewinsky deposition last week. “I was squarely in the middle of it. That’s a large responsibility for a new senator.”

The Senate voted 50-50 on the impeachment article accusing Clinton of obstruction of justice, far short of the two-thirds required for conviction. They also rejected the charge of perjury by a 55-45 vote, which also required a two-third majority for conviction.

A relieved and, for the first time during his Senate tenure, loquacious Edwards sounded less like a newcomer and more like a man in the political driver’s seat as he recounted what he called a draining, humbling day.

The former Raleigh trial lawyer said he had made up his mind by Thursday night to vote down the articles of impeachment because the House managers had not “proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the president was guilty as charged.

“I looked at all the evidence on a daily basis, was up until the wee hours of the morning every night,” Edwards said. “What people need to understand is that this does not come down to `Do you like President Clinton? Do you think he’s honest?’ It’s a question of whether he is guilty of the crimes of which he is accused. And I don’t believe he is.”

In his remarks on the Senate floor Thursday, Helms seemed resigned to the outcome, spending the bulk of his statement chastising the news media for “trivializing what should be respected as our solemn duty.”

“Mr. Chief Justice, I plead with senators to look around and see what Bill Clinton’s scandal has wrought,” he said. “National debate is now a national joke. Children tell their parents and teachers that it’s OK to lie, because the president does it. Our citizens tune out in droves, preferring the daily distractions of everyday life to an honest appraisal of the depths to which the presidency of the United States has sunk.

“If this is progress and if this is the path history is taking … we must simply summon our courage and yell, `Stop tampering with the soul of America.’ ”

While all the senators’ speeches were delivered in sessions closed to the public, most released their remarks later. Friday afternoon, Edwards reiterated his previous opposition to closing the final Senate deliberations, only with more fervor.

“I fundamentally believe we should not be doing the business of the American public behind closed doors,” he said. “The United States Senate belongs to the people, not to us. And after having gone through the closed session, I feel even more strongly about it.”

Edwards said that “if people had been able to see them debate, see them struggle over these issues and listen to their arguments, it would have restored their faith in government and in politicians.”

If Helms’ remarks were a soaring Sunday sermon, then Edwards’ were a closing argument. He said he decided to nix the statement he had prepared to deliver on the Senate floor Friday morning, opting instead to speak “off the cuff about what I felt from the heart.”

“For me, the law is a sacred thing,” Edwards said from the well of the Senate. “And I will tell you what that sacred responsibility means to me personally. It means that when I walked in here the first day of this impeachment trial I was 100 percent completely open to voting to remove this president.”

Edwards then directed his comments toward the Republicans, telling them that “this president has shown a remarkable disrespect for his office, for the moral dimensions of leadership, for his friends, for his wife, for his precious daughter. It is breathtaking to me the level to which that disrespect has risen.”

But he continued to go through, one by one and in great legal detail, his feelings on the obstruction charges against Clinton, saying often that he was troubled by the president’s actions but in the end, not convinced that he had willingly coerced either Betty Currie or Lewinsky into lying under oath to cover up his misdeeds.

Herald-Sun, The (Durham, NC) Date: February 13, 1999 Page: A6 Copyright, 1999, The Durham Herald Company