Clinton on Trial

Clinton on Trial

Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 14 1999 11:00 PM

Clinton on Trial

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Is the Ninth Time the Charm?

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As the House managers open the prosecution of the president today, the real obstacle they face is not the absence of witnesses or the dismal poll numbers. It is redundancy. Today's exhibition marks, by my count, the ninth official presentation of the case against Clinton--the ninth in less than three months, the ninth recounting of the same story, same evidence, same charges. The other eight are, in chronological order: 1) the Starr report; 2) the supporting documents; 3) David Schippers' opening presentation to the House Judiciary Committee; 4) Starr's testimony to the committee; 5) Schippers' closing presentation; 6) the committee's final report; 7) the committee's presentation to the full House; and 8) the briefs filed this week by the managers.

Fortunately for Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., and his dozen co-managers, they have a captive audience. No matter how bored they may be, the 100 senators will sit silently and listen (or at least pretend to) for the three day opening argument. The guidelines for senatorial conduct distributed yesterday make it very clear that perfect attendance and good behavior are required of senators.

After the opening prayer--only in Washington does a chaplain thank God for guiding senators to unity "in matters of procedure"--Hyde takes to the podium in the well of the chamber. His opening lines strike one of the main themes of the day: baldfaced flattery of the Senate. Senators have criticized the House managers for being too pushy, but Hyde & Co. are in full lickspittle mode. "We want you to know how much we respect you as an institution," Hyde says. Later, manager Rep. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark., slobbers that he knows the case will be settled fairly because "I believe in you. I have faith in the United States Senate."

Most of Hyde's brief statement addresses the sanctity of the judicial oath, a favorite subject of his. He recounts the story of Sir Thomas More, who chose to be beheaded rather than swear an oath he did not believe. (Beheading--that's a novel alternative punishment .) Hyde also introduces his fellow managers and recites their legal credentials. The most remarkable fact here is that four of the managers served in the judge advocate general corps--that is, they were military prosecutors. Military courts are tougher on adulterers than are civil courts, making me wonder whether the ex-JAGs may be inclined to judge the president more sternly than other lawyers.

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Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., follows Hyde to the podium for an hourlong outline of the House managers' case. It soon becomes clear that the prosecution has chosen to embrace the ninth-time problem rather than flee from it. Instead of trying to dazzle the Senate with something new--which would be impossible because there isn't anything new--the managers are practicing the Chinese water torture method of prosecution. Beat them senseless with repetition. Sensenbrenner plods through the points everyone has heard 1,000 times already. No man is above the law. The president's perjury in the Paula Jones case--"a civil rights lawsuit"!--undermined the judicial system. (Sensenbrenner mysteriously insists on calling Jones "Mrs. Paula Jones.") Judges have been impeached for grand jury perjury, so is there going to be one law for judges and one for the president? Perjury is a high crime because it is as bad as bribery. The judicial oath is the foundation of justice. There is a "cancer in the body politic," e pluribus unum, Teddy Roosevelt, etc.

Sensenbrenner, who has a stupendous Wisconsin accent and a tiny, pinched voice that sounds silly in such a beefy man, does not dazzle. A cloud of fatigue settles on the chamber after 15 minutes. Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., issues the first yawn. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., soon follows. The few senators who are taking notes stop. During a break, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, tells reporters, "I'm taking these antibiotics. It's tough as hell to stay awake." (Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., is wearing sunglasses--no doubt for a medical reason--but he could be in full snooze for all anyone knows.)

Rep. Ed Bryant, R-Tenn., then offers a chronology of the case. It is just as familiar and soporific as Sensenbrenner's presentation. Bryant is succeeded, mercifully, by Hutchinson, who argues the case for obstruction of justice. Congressional Democrats considered and rejected the idea of trying to get Hutchinson removed as a manager on the grounds that his brother Tim serves in the Senate. The Democrats may be regretting their mistake. Asa Hutchinson, who may be the only Republican who emerges from Flytrap with his reputation polished, is superb. He has a warm voice, persuasive manner, and a gift for one-liners. (When he describes how Clinton spent late December and early January desperately trying to ensure Monica Lewinsky's silence, Hutchinson mocks the president's current fave phrase, "The president had some time to work. That work was not 'the business of the nation.' "

And Hutchinson's case for obstruction of justice is frightfully cogent. He carefully explains how Clinton spurred witness Monica Lewinsky to lie, coached potential witness Betty Currie to lie, found Lewinsky a job in exchange for a false affidavit, got Currie and Lewinsky to conceal gifts, and deceived Sidney Blumenthal and John Podesta so that they would lie to the grand jury. His chronology of the White House cover-up in December 1997 and January 1998 is by far the best account so far. Hutchinson begs the Senate to hear witnesses to confirm his obstruction of justice claims and, after a presentation this good, I can't imagine that too many Republicans will resist his pleas.

I leave the Senate just as Rep. James Rogan, R-Calif., begins the final argument of the day. Outside the Capitol I am accosted by a woman: "Tell everyone you know to face God this year. It's the end times." Unfortunately, she's wrong. The House managers will be presenting for two more days.