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Impeachment trial will need a 'Perry Mason moment'

Impeachment trial will need a 'Perry Mason moment'
© Greg Nash

As the formal impeachment trial of President Donald Trump gets underway in the Senate this week, one side or the other — especially the Democrats — will need to do something extraordinary to break the polling logjam that shows voters evenly divided.

They will need the political equivalent of TV’s “Perry Mason moment.” Call it the “Dale Bumpers moment.”

Bumpers, a veteran Democratic senator from Arkansas, had just retired when President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonWomen set to take key roles in Biden administration Biden's great challenge: Build an economy for long-term prosperity and security Biden faces politically thorny decision on Trump prosecutions MORE’s defense team brought him on board for the impeachment trial in January 1999. A folksy politician trained in the art of speeches to Rotary clubs and chambers of commerce back home, he was handed a key job: the closing argument against the House’s indictment.

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It was a tougher position to be in than history might indicate. After all, the public was firmly against impeachment; everyone on Capitol Hill knew the votes were not there to convict and remove Clinton by the required two-thirds majority.

But Republican House impeachment managers felt they could win a simple majority of senators, and that would be a vindication of their actions. This seemed easy: The GOP controlled the Senate, 55 to 45. Even public support for Clinton could have been up for grabs, as the process moved from the cacophony of the House to the august drama of the Senate. Messy congressional hearings were about to give way to that made-for-TV staple: a trial.

The best television trials have what writers and producers call a “Perry Mason moment,” named after the iconic courtroom series than ran from 1957 to 1966. In almost every episode, the case seemed to go badly for defense attorney Mason — until the final act. Suddenly, there was a new piece of evidence or a surprise witness, and Mason delivered a stunning closing argument that shut down any chance of conviction.

Enter Dale Bumpers. His summation lasted nearly an hour, punctuated by self-deprecating humor and one-liners aimed at his friends in the Senate. Beneath his country-lawyer geniality was a serious purpose: to tie all the loose ends together, Perry Mason-style, and reduce the grandeur of the moment to its unseemly essence.

This was not, he said, about a “breach of public trust.” It was — pure and simple — a sex scandal. To a burst of laughter in the chamber, he famously added: “When you hear somebody say it’s not about sex, it’s about sex.”

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I worked for NBC News at the time; all of us watching Bumpers’ speech could feel the impeachment momentum dissipate — and everyone, from the House managers to the senators, knew it was over.

The vote on article one, perjury, was 45 to convict versus 55 to acquit. The vote on article two, obstruction of justice, was 50-50. No simple majority for either.

Post-impeachment, Clinton’s approval rating hit a record high 73 percent in the Gallup poll.

Democrats this time around are in the same position that House Republicans were back then: No one expects a two-thirds vote to impeach and remove President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden to nominate Linda Thomas-Greenfield for UN ambassador: reports Scranton dedicates 'Joe Biden Way' to honor president-elect Kasich: Republicans 'either in complete lockstep' or 'afraid' of Trump MORE, but winning a majority of the Senate vote would be an unexpected victory. The recent emergence of new evidence has caused some of the 53 GOP senators to soften certain hardline stances against the impeachment process. But that’s a far cry from crossing party lines to ultimately cast a final vote to convict.

Still, it could happen — especially if someone steps up to the podium and weaves a compelling narrative for the nation. As Dale Bumpers showed 21 years ago, a simple speech delivered with passion and skill, aimed at 100 senators in a room and millions of people at home, can change how history is written.

That’s something either side of the impeachment divide can use right now.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.