Sarbanes abandons low profile, calls Whitewater committee 'out of whack' Senator says Republicans made wild accusations

June 19, 1996|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes likes to think of himself as quietly effective, a politician uninterested in publicity and willing to work behind the scenes.

So it was somewhat unusual yesterday to watch Maryland's low-profile senior senator as he held forth before several dozen reporters and cameras defending the honor of President Clinton and repudiating Republicans for the "venom" with which they have gone after Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Glad to be finished

As the senior Democrat on the Senate Whitewater Committee, Sarbanes was delivering his party's report on more than a year's worth of hearings and putting the finishing touches on one of the more public roles of his 25-year Washington career. Afterward, he made it clear he was glad to have the job behind him.

"I got frustrated," said Sarbanes, who at times was the president's only defender on the committee. Republicans, he said, made wild accusations, berated witnesses and viewed each act in the most sinister light.

"I tried very hard to keep this thing on track. It just deteriorated very badly."

A partisan Democrat himself, Sarbanes has rarely had a leading role in controversial issues. Over the past months, though, he has often traded rhetorical blows with Republicans and occasionally been a lightning rod for criticism.

Last month, he got into a shouting match with Chairman Alfonse tTC M. D'Amato of New York over whether to subpoena the FBI to answer questions about its analysis of the mysteriously reappearing law firm records that contained Mrs. Clinton's fingerprints.

At least one GOP committee member has suggested that Sarbanes has been more interested in protecting the president than getting at the truth. "When you join this committee as an investigative senator and stop being a defense attorney, we'll make some headway," GOP Sen. Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina snapped during one session last year.

Sarbanes said yesterday that he asked tough questions of the Clinton administration in an attempt to steer a middle course on the politically charged issue. But as Republicans became more partisan with the approaching election, he said, he was forced to defend witnesses and rebut more and more GOP accusations.

"There was a shift in the Republican attitude," he said.

'Way outside the parameters'

"They went way outside the parameters. At that point, our focus had to be somehow on trying to counterbalance this, because it was just completely out of whack."

Last night, during an appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live," Sarbanes was asked by a caller from Orlando, Fla., why Democrats didn't ask tougher questions and try to get to the truth.

"We tried to do that," Sarbanes said. "There were instances in which I thought witnesses were being berated and in those instances I did raise objections with the chairman."

Sarbanes has served before on congressional investigative panels. He said the committees were more collegial back then and focused more on substantive issues and less on trying to gain political advantage.

As a member of the House Judiciary Committee in 1974, he wrote one of the key articles of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon.

The Whitewater committee "lacked the sort of bipartisanship and sort of commitment to process that marked both the Watergate committee and the Iran-contra committee," Sarbanes said. "It was very different."

Pub Date: 6/19/96

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