Everyone wants to know how Congress is going to get out of the Flytrap mess. What's the exit strategy? After watching Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr for eight hours today, I propose an idea. Put Starr on every TV channel in the nation and let him talk. After five minutes, when the entire country has fallen into a deep slumber, the House can drop the matter. When everyone wakes up, we can pretend it was all just a nightmare.
Both Democrats and Republicans seem weirdly hopeful about today's House Judiciary Committee meeting, the first and perhaps only major impeachment hearing. Democrats, who are still enjoying their postelection gloat, know they have won the war: Clinton is safe, Flytrap is all but dead. They see today as their chance to punish the enemy, to humiliate Starr for his prosecutorial aggression and sexual obsession.
Hard-core conservatives, who dominate the Republican side of the committee and who willfully refuse to learn anything from the election, still suffer from the delusion that they can beat Clinton. They feel that somehow, if Starr explains it just one more time, the American people will come to their senses. During the lunch break, Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, actually tells reporters that today is important because "It's finally an opportunity for Ken Starr to tell his side of the story." (So what was the 453 page report? The 7,000 pages of documents? The six months of leaks?) Chabot's spin is the Republican's only hope, that this time will be different. Starr, they pray, may be Flytrap's Oliver North, the witness who reverses public opinion by sheer force of personality.
But Starr foils both sides.
The hearing has the kind of monstrous buzz that Flytrap hasn't seen since Monica testified in August. Eight networks are here to cover it live, so are a zillion print reporters. Michael Moore has come with a camera crew. He has special access and lurks on the dais behind Democratic committee members. (Moore is ostentatiously underdressed, wearing a windbreaker and a green baseball cap with a big letter S--for Starr?)
And the hearing opens with the kind of vitriol everyone has anticipated. As soon as Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., bangs the gavel at 10:10 a.m., committee Democrats start carping that they are being unfairly silenced, that they and Clinton's lawyers have not been given enough time to question Starr. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a posturing Texan, says that Democrats are being "bound and gagged in the courtroom" and compares the hearing to the Chicago Seven trial. Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C. calls the hearing a "railroading." Members start yelling "I will not yield!" It is all very promising and becomes even more so when the ranking Democrat, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, gives his opening statement. Staring at the independent counsel, who's seated below him at the witness table, Conyers scolds "Kenneth W. Starr" (as he repeatedly calls him) for writing "the tawdry, salacious, and unnecessarily graphic" report and for "cross[ing] the line into obsession."
Then Starr begins his two hour presentation, and he sucks the air out of the room. Democrats like to say Starr is "dangerous." Boy, they're right! Starr is a terror, a one man weapon of mass exhaustion. Starr's strategy, and I'm sure it is intentional, is to seem so unremarkable, so unthreatening, so uninteresting that his critics can't find anything to attack. Oliver North he's not.
Starr's two hour performance--if you can call it that--consists of him reading a 58 page prepared statement in a monotone. He reads excruciatingly slowly. I count his pace--100 words a minute. This ... is ... what ... it's ... like ... to ... listen ... to ... someone ... talking ... at ... 100 ... words ... a ... minute. ... Now ... imagine ... listening ... to ... this ... for ... two ... hours.
Starr's address is not only tortoise-paced, it's also familiar, a rehash of everything we've read 50 times before--what his duties are as independent counsel, how the Lewinsky case came to him, why he pursued it as he did, how the president lied, etc. I imagine the network news directors pulling their hair out: We're covering this! Some pudding-faced old guy reading a two hour statement at 16 rpm! Get me Regis and Kathie Lee!
(There is one small diversion in the monologue: Whenever Starr quotes from President Clinton's testimony, he drops his voice a register and makes it breathy. The effect is creepy.)
The attention of the committee members wanders. I begin to count yawns: Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C.; Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C.; Rep. Charles Canady, R-Fla. ... I lose count. (Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., the photogenic and aggressive Clinton defender, does not succumb to this languor. He glares at Starr as if he's a particularly vicious child molester.)
During the lunch break that follows Starr's statement, Democrats are gleeful. "Did you see that?" says Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif. "His own guys were falling asleep. Starr was putting his own guys to sleep." The principal and persuasive Democratic spin: The only new thing Starr said was that he has exonerated Clinton in Filegate and Travelgate.
But any hope that Democrats can capitalize on Starr's non-North performance dissolves immediately after lunch, when Democratic committee counsel Abbe Lowell questions Starr. It is like hammering water. Lowell tries to get Starr to admit that he should have told the attorney general about his contacts with Paula Jones' lawyers and that he mistreated Monica Lewinsky by holding her for hours at the Ritz-Carlton and denying her a lawyer.
Lowell has been given an hour to quiz the independent counsel. Starr runs out the clock on him. Lowell fires his questions. Each time, Starr looks slightly pained, then says, "In fairness, Mr. Lowell ...," then wanders off on an immensely long, barely responsive answer. Just when I think Starr has finished, I hear, "and, indeed, if I could just add that ..." (I notice another Starr tic: He uses adverbs to drag everything out. He does not "dispute," he "utterly disputes." Something is not "misleading," it is "grossly misleading.")
The interrogation by members that follows is equally unproductive. (I am writing at 6:30 p.m., when the committee has nearly finished its questioning, but the Republican counsel and Clinton's lawyers have not yet taken their turns.) Each member gets five minutes, which, after a windy introduction, turns out to be time for two questions. Republicans generally congratulate Starr for his fair-mindedness and resilience in the face of partisan attack, then toss him softballs about whether the rule of law should apply to everyone equally. (His surprising answer: It should.)
Democrats pursue the Lowell strategy, trying to bully Starr into revealing embarrassments. One member wants to know what leaks his office made, another why he didn't stop Linda Tripp from helping Jones' lawyers. But even the toughest inquisitor--Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.--can't shake the affectless Starr, who ducks questions with the grace of, well, Clinton. As the afternoon wears on, the committee room empties.
Frank, as usual, has the keenest take. During an afternoon break, he tells a crowd of reporters that the day is useless. "Hearing Ken Starr is a waste of time." No matter what happens here, Frank continues, it won't make a difference to Flytrap's outcome. Conservative Republicans are so obsessed with nailing Clinton that they will never surrender. "The horse is dying, and the logical thing to do is shoot it. But the right wing says 'No, no, we'll paint stripes on it and call it a zebra.' They just won't accept defeat." And because they hold the committee majority, "They are not going to give up without voting out an article of impeachment."
Which brings me to the person who deserves the most sympathy in all this: Henry Hyde, or "poor Henry," as Frank calls him. His committee's conservatives are pressuring Hyde to do something, anything, to make the scandal viable again. In the last few days they have proposed subpoenaing John Huang, taking over the campaign finance investigation, going after Kathleen Willey, going after Kathleen Willey's lawyer. Hyde can't control them. Nor can he rein in the Democrats who accuse him of partisanship.
Hyde's own reputation has been ruined by the news of his adultery, his committee is in shambles, there is no way out of the Flytrap mess, but what can he do? Still "poor Henry" must sit up on the dais, ashen-faced, and preside over this sorry, sorry Starr spectacle.