Congress shocked, amused by sex details Party leaders sound note of caution, ask members to reserve their judgment

The Starr Report

September 12, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Members of Congress had heard salacious rumors about President Clinton's sexual escapades with Monica Lewinsky for months, but when the details landed on their desks yesterday in black and white, the reaction was profound.

"Disgusting," said Republican Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia.

"Shocking," said Rep. Charles T. Canady, a Florida Republican.

But not everyone was offended. In fact, some joked about the report.

"I didn't know people did those type of things; it's very strange behavior," New York Rep. Charles B. Rangel, the lead Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, said with a chuckle.

Whether the report was found to be offensive or not, jaws dropped throughout Capitol Hill as independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report streamed across computer screens on Congress' internal computer network. The solemn public statements may have revolved around the serious allegations of perjury, obstruction of justice, witness tampering and abuse of power, but the thoughts were about sex.

"It's not the content. It's the quantity," said a House Democratic aide. "I mean, jeez, this wasn't just one bad day at the office."

Republican and Democratic leaders implored members to reserve judgment, and for the most part, members were careful to say they would not declare whether they believed that the president should be impeached.

But some members could not help tipping their hands, even as they insisted that they had reached no conclusions.

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin, a senior Republican member of the House Judiciary Committee, said lying to a grand jury would be an impeachable offense and pointedly discussed the recent criminal prosecution by the Justice Department of a doctor who lied under oath about sex in a civil case.

"The Justice Department, under Bill Clinton, has prosecuted people for perjury about sex in a civil lawsuit," Sensenbrenner said, drawing parallels to Starr's allegations that Clinton lied under oath about sex during a deposition for Paula Corbin Jones' sexual misconduct suit.

But some Democrats said the president should not be impeached for private conduct.

"As far as I'm concerned, [Starr's report] involves obscene conduct between two very immature people, one of which happens to be the president of the United States," Rangel said. "But I don't really think the American people believe -- as disgusting as these things are -- the man ought to be run out of town."

Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Prince George's County Democrat, said: "If you open up anybody's private life and look at it in detail, it would look pretty graphic."

Clearly, though, the pages and pages of sexual detail had caught everyone's eye, and could dramatically change the political landscape.

Said one senior Judiciary Committee member, speaking on condition of anonymity: "It all presents a picture of the defilement of the American presidency. And that will have a political impact."

It did not help that Lewinsky detailed three instances in which she performed a sexual act on the president while he was talking to members of the Congress.

One of them, Rep. Sonny Callahan, an Alabama Republican, could not resist joking: "I can say unequivocally and without hesitation that I had no knowledge I was sharing the president's time or attention with anyone else."

He was not the only member of Congress to find levity in Starr's report. Rangel said that for the first time, he understood why Starr has pursued the Lewinsky scandal so doggedly.

"I can understand better why he couldn't stop his investigation. I can understand why a guy like that says, 'Wow!' " Rangel said, laughing as he sat in his office, Starr's report on his computer screen. "But I still don't think it's what a special counsel should be doing."

The public spin among Republicans and Democrats was identical: Don't rush to judgment. We still have to hear President Clinton's side. Impeachment is a very serious matter.

"We need to ultimately hear from the president if we actually go forward with impeachment hearings," said Canady, a prominent member of the House Judiciary Committee, which would handle any inquiry that could lead to the removal of the president.

But the shock of the report had quietly taken a toll just hours after its release. Democratic aides to the Judiciary Committee had been warning for weeks that dumping the tawdry details on the public and the Congress all at once would leave Clinton so buried in dirt that he might never dig out.

Yet Republicans, and even some Democrats, believed the rampant sexual rumors had prepared everyone for the worst. They might have been wrong.

"You're never prepared for this," said Davis, shaking his head. "Never."

"It's one thing to read or hear speculation," Canady said. "It's another to see and read a report that is meticulously well documented and referenced to testimony taken from witnesses under oath."

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