Clinton on Trial

Clinton on Trial

Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 15 1999 10:00 PM

Clinton on Trial

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The Sideshow Freaks

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After yesterday's gloom, I happily avail myself of a little relief in the glorious forms of Abe Hirschfeld and Susan Carpenter-McMillan. Hirschfeld and Carpenter-McMillan are the Goofus and Gasbag of Flytrap, the oddest couple in this extremely odd scandal.

Hirschfeld, you will remember, is the eccentric (to put it mildly) New York parking tycoon who in October offered to pay Paula Jones $1 million to help settle her suit against President Clinton. The $1 million was refused, then accepted, then ultimately refused. Which was good for Hirschfeld, because in December he was indicted for trying to hire a hit man to murder his longtime business partner, and he used the $1 million to post bond. And in the past few days, he has informally engaged Jones' mouthpiece (and I do mean mouth) Carpenter-McMillan as his PR agent. (After all, she has done such a magnificent job with Jones' image.)

Hirschfeld and Carpenter-McMillan bring their sideshow to the National Press Club this morning, where Hirschfeld is scheduled to deliver his ... State of the Union--State of the World. When I arrive at 9:45, Hirschfeld is there. Carpenter-McMillan is not. Hirschfeld, wearing a blue suit, crossword-puzzle tie, bloody lip, and scar across the forehead, orates to an audience of two reporters, one cameraman, one photographer, and his lawyer. He congratulates Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura on his victory and takes credit for it. He takes credit for the settlement of the Paula Jones suit and for the idea of a single Israeli-Palestinian state, calling Edward Said's identical plan last Sunday in the New York Times Magazine a "pure case of plagiarism." Proposing a bullet train line from New York to Washington, Hirschfeld declares that he holds a patent on such a train and says he could have it operating in six months. He also commends himself for being named one of Time's "Business Geniuses of the Century." (Well, sort of: Hirschfeld rates a paragraph in a Time article headlined "Crazy and in Charge.")

During the Q and A, Hirschfeld says he got his head scar when, "three guys from the district attorney's office" invaded his home in the middle of the night and "attacked me in bed." He also weeps over the death of relatives in the Holocaust and remembers to takes credit for the defeat of New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and the election of Gov. George Pataki. At the end of this Press Club fiasco, when only Hirschfeld, his lawyer, and I remain, Carpenter-McMillan suddenly appears. She is apologetic. She did not get her wake up call. She looks dashing. She is not representing him. She insists, "I came as a friend."

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I am hoping that Carpenter-McMillan will not ask me my name because I wrote an unkind article about her in Slate last year ("The Woman Who Ate Paula Jones"). She does. "You are a vicious, vicious journalist. That was very, very mean. You're vicious. Why are you so mean? Do you really think I'm a loudmouth?" I answer that I do. But spin conquers all. A few minutes later, she is telling me about her latest project: A lawsuit against a movie studio for child abuse. "Call me about it," she says. Hirschfeld hands me his card. It reads "Count Abe Hirschfeld. New York Post, Former Publisher and Chairman. Commissioner, Miami Beach, Florida. Founding Chairman, House of Levi." He also gives me a yellow envelope. It contains 50 pages of articles in Hebrew and a letter from his stockbroker congratulating him on getting out of the stock market before it crashes.

Neither, sadly, are heading over to the Senate for the trial. But both give me their sound bite. Carpenter-McMillan: "Yesterday they wrote the textbook on impeachment. It was wonderful." Hirschfeld: "It was horrible." What a team!

Back under the big tent, media biggies are everywhere. Jimmy Breslin in that corner. Dominick Dunne and Dee Dee Myers over there. Peter Jennings works the corridors, pestering senators with questions (and good ones, too!). Senators seem unsure whether they should defer to Jennings or he to them. The morning is dedicated to the absurd proposition that the Senate is not preoccupied by impeachment. Assistant Majority Leader Don Nickles, R-Okla., and a couple of fellow Republicans hold a press conference to announce GOP health care initiatives. Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., hold a press conference on Democratic health care initiatives an hour later.

The afternoon trial session, the second of three days for the prosecution, begins with House manager Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., who delivers yet another chronology of the case. (Here is the Republican method: First Rep. Ed Bryant, R-Tenn., told us what they were going to tell us. Then Reps. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark., and James Rogan, R-Calif., told us. Now McCollum has come to tell us what they told us.)

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McCollum is also clear and eloquent, nearly as good as Hutchinson was yesterday. He hauls out federal sentencing guidelines to demonstrate that perjury is considered a more serious crime than bribery. ("Bribery is a 10. ... Perjury is a 12, not a 10. Witness tampering is a 12, not a 10.") He walks the Senate through the Lewinsky job search, Clinton's deposition perjury, the concealment of gifts, etc.

He lands one clean blow on Clinton. Clinton's defenders insist that Monica Lewinsky's affidavit was true, because in denying a "sexual relationship" she was only denying intercourse. McCollum points out that the Lewinsky affidavit also contains her denial that she ever saw him outside of official events, an absolute, baldfaced lie that can't be explained away by any Clintonian word games. The high point of McCollum's presentation is his recitation of Clinton's preposterous deposition statements--e.g., "The president swore in the deposition that he could not recall gifts exchanged between Monica Lewinsky and himself." McCollum then punctuates each of the 10 statements with: "The evidence indicates that he lied."

McCollum make one certain mark on history. He is the first person to utter the word "genitalia" during the trial. Also the word "breast."

Give credit to the Senate. I do a quick survey at a slow moment and find 66 senators paying attention to McCollum. Only 20 are reading, just a dozen are staring into space, and a mere two are absent. (In the press gallery, by contrast, fewer than half the three score reporters in eyeshot are paying attention.)

The trial is, of course, a two track process, the public and the private. As public reiteration continues in the chamber, the senators have moved on to a new private squabble. For some inexplicable reason, yesterday's presentation seems to have settled the question of whether any witnesses will be called. They will be. Today, Republicans have upped the ante, suggesting that the president should be called. This is an idea that the managers had floated, but now Republican senators are latching on to it. In a briefing, Lott's spokesman claims the idea is "percolating" among both Republicans and Democrats.

After McCollum's presentation, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., descends on the press in a fury. Calling the president as a witness and then attacking him if he refuses to testify would set "a terrible precedent" and undo "224 years of the principle that you are innocent until proved guilty. Innocent till proved guilty." Then he stalks off. The Republicans, however, have 55 votes.