Videotape reveals little new evidence Opinions of lawmakers remain unchanged after watching it

The Clinton Investigation

September 22, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun staff writer Candus Thomson contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- After their bitter battle over releasing the president's videotaped grand jury testimony, Republicans and Democrats alike conceded little new information came from broadcast of the tape yesterday and few minds would be changed by Clinton's performance.

Those critical of Clinton will find statements to confirm their view, and those who question whether independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr has made his case against the president will find ample reason to continue feeling that way, members of both parties said.

"People who were expecting fireworks were considerably let down," said Rep. Asa Hutchinson, a Judiciary Committee Republican from Arkansas. "Clearly, the videotape will be of more evidentiary value than entertainment value."

Republicans contended that Clinton appeared to violate his oath of office and the trust of the public by lying before a federal grand jury. Democrats countered that the president acquitted himself well before overbearing prosecutors obsessed with his sex life.

Perhaps the most honest assessment of the day's events came from Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle. When the South Dakotan was asked if Clinton's televised testimony would be damaging to the president's future, he merely shrugged. That "is not something anybody can assess right now," he said.

With more than four hours of testimony to analyze and 3,183 pages of evidence to digest, the House Judiciary Committee has a lot of work to do before determining whether Clinton should be impeached. But the committee's Republican majority is strongly leaning toward requesting the full House to approve a formal impeachment inquiry.

"I have to tell you candidly there's a lot that points in the direction of the need for such an inquiry," said House Judiciary Committee Republican Charles T. Canady of Florida, pointing to "very disturbing questions here about whether the president committed perjury before the grand jury."

That decision could come as early as the first week of October, in time for a formal vote on impeachment proceedings before the House's scheduled adjournment Oct. 9.

The House Republican Conference distributed a "road map" to help GOP members decipher the president's testimony, charging Clinton with word games, stalling, refusing to answer grand jury questions and shifting the blame for his evasions onto the lawyers of Paula Corbin Jones, the woman whose sexual misconduct lawsuit precipitated the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

When Clinton testified that he had been "alone with Ms. Lewinsky on certain occasions," Republicans said he flatly contradicted sworn testimony that he had never been alone with the former White House intern.

Clinton said his improper relationship with Lewinsky began in 1996, after she had ended her internship and joined the White House staff. Lewinsky said the relationship began in November 1995, while she was an intern.

But the most glaring contradiction remains the most politically troubling one: Did Clinton touch Lewinsky sexually, thus violating the definition of sexual relations that was used in the Jones lawsuit? Lewinsky said he did so -- repeatedly. Clinton denied it.

That leaves Congress with an unseemly "he said, she said" on graphic sexual details, and it sets up the uncomfortable prospect of Capitol Hill hearings to hash out exactly what sexual conduct the president and Lewinsky engaged in.

"I don't think we can shrink from doing our duty under the Constitution because it's uncomfortable," Canady said. "This is about the rule of law."

But the last time such sexual details became the centerpiece of congressional hearings was during the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Those hearings became a spectacle that damaged Democrats and Republicans alike. Moderate Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania nearly lost his Senate seat because of the reaction of women voters to his harsh questioning of Anita Hill, who charged Thomas with sexual harassment.

The House Judiciary Committee is far more partisan and rancorous than the Senate Judiciary Committee that conducted the Thomas hearings, one Democratic Judiciary Committee aide noted, predicting House Republicans "will make Arlen Specter look like the greatest statesman the Senate ever had."

Democrats tried hard to underscore the sexual dispute at the core of the perjury charge. The Democratic National Committee calculated that Starr's prosecutors asked Clinton "unnecessary, salacious questions about sex" at least 81 times.

The DNC noted the prosecutors asked no questions about the Whitewater land deal that prompted the independent counsel probe, or about the subsequent Starr investigations of the firing of the White House travel office or the allegedly improper use of FBI files.

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