By William Saletan
The Lewinsky investigation may be 8 months old, but Congress' formal role in it was literally born yesterday, when Kenneth Starr's vans dumped his report at the Capitol. The first hours of a major political story such as this one are always crucial, because impressions form quickly. The question at stake is whether Congress' impeachment deliberations will be regarded as the fair and solemn fulfillment of constitutional duties or as the latest stage of a political vendetta by President Clinton's enemies. If Republicans in Congress make the wrong first impression, they will find it difficult to regain the public confidence necessary to impeach the president.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich made a good start this morning by laying down a ground rule against ad hominem attacks on Clinton. But the White House and Democratic leaders in Congress, in clearly coordinated remarks yesterday and today, have significantly complicated the Republican Party's bid for neutrality by posing a new fairness test. If Congress is truly fair, say the Democrats, it will let Clinton's lawyers preview Starr's report before it is released to the public, so that Clinton can rebut Starr's allegations and characterizations of the evidence.
The White House's plea for advance notice is the final stage of a weeklong attempt to cripple Starr before the onset of the spin battle over the report. Several days ago, after Clinton's surrogates had spent months undermining Starr's credibility by characterizing him and his evidence, Clinton lawyer David Kendall sent Starr a letter challenging Starr's authority to characterize the evidence in his report to Congress. Kendall further demanded that Starr give his report to Clinton well in advance of its release, which would allow Clinton to put out his own spin before Starr's. White House aides admitted that they expected Starr to reject Kendall's request but that they made the request public because they wanted the country to know that it had been made and rejected. In short, they 1) asked Starr to give up his right to spin; 2) asked him to let Clinton have the first punch in the spin fight; and 3) spun Starr's refusal to grant these requests as unfairness on his part.
Now that Starr has rejected Kendall's request and has got the jump on the White House by turning over his report to Congress, Clinton's lawyers have asked congressional leaders to give Clinton the same spin-preparation opportunity Starr denied them. According to today's reports, congressional Republicans have turned down this request. The press and the public will get to see Starr's report at the same time the White House gets to see it, i.e., before the White House has a chance to respond.
In the short run, this means that Starr gets the first punch and that Clinton's lawyers will have to scramble for answers in the hours and days following the report's release. But in the long run, the GOP's refusal of the preview request will become Exhibit A in the Democrats' case against the legitimacy of the Clinton impeachment process. The assault is already underway. The impeachment process "is not getting off on the right start, in my view, if the person who is most directly affected and can provide us with his own account is denied the right to do so," Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle told the press today. The GOP's refusal, he warned, "would demonstrate an element of unfairness we're going to have to be very concerned about.''
This inference may strike Republicans as unfair, since Clinton will get his chance to counterspin Starr's report anyway, once the report is released. But as Kendall's recent PR tactics demonstrate, "fairness" is just another weapon in the struggle for political advantage.