'Right wing conspiracy' charge not so empty now

September 25, 1998|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's controlled grand jury testimony, disproving speculation that he would blow his stack at his aggressive interrogators, was not the only surprise in the release of materials from independent counsel Kenneth Starr to the House Judiciary Committee.

Mr. Starr also turned over information that unwittingly feeds Mr. Clinton's central argument, first voiced when Hillary Clinton complained of "a vast right-wing conspiracy," that the independent counsel is a partisan zealot out to drive him from office.

The president's attorneys have wasted no time complaining to the Judiciary Committee that Mr. Starr in his report made selective use of Monica Lewinsky's testimony, quoting it when it suited his purposes "and downplaying it or ignoring it when it did not." They cited particularly Ms. Lewinsky's volunteered comment at the close of her grand jury testimony that "I would just like to say that no one ever asked me to lie and I was never promised a job for my silence."

Driving their protest home, the lawyers charged that Mr. Starr "chose to print over 150 pages of gratuitous and graphic sexual detail but could not find space for a single sentence quoting Ms. Lewinsky's sworn testimony which directly undermines the central obstruction-of-justice allegations" against Mr. Clinton.

Also damaging to Mr. Starr was the release of Ms. Lewinsky's testimony that his associates, in the sting they sprang on her with Linda Tripp's cooperation last January, used heavy-handed methods to scare her. Also, they resisted her requests to call her attorney or her mother.

She testified that they warned her she would be denied immunity from prosecution if she called a lawyer, and that a Starr assistant said of her request to contact her mother: "You're 24, you're smart, you're old enough. You don't need to call your mommy." She was eventually permitted to summon her mother.

While the Starr team may have acted within the law, the impression of brow-beating gives Mr. Clinton more ammunition to fire in his contention that he has been the victim of a political vendetta.

When Mrs. Clinton first made her charge of a right-wing conspiracy, the consensus within the Washington press corps was that the allegation was a transparent diversionary tactic that would not work. But that view was proved wrong as the White House took up the cry and hammered it home, and as Mr. Starr's zealousness reinforced it.

Mr. Clinton was widely criticized when, in his Aug. 17 statement acknowledging his "not appropriate" relationship with Ms. Lewinsky, he went on to continue his attack on Mr. Starr. Reacting to the complaint that he was "not contrite enough," he subsequently delivered a stronger mea culpa, but added at the same time that he would pursue all appropriate legal means to defend himself.

In the process, Mr. Clinton has deftly managed to use Mr. Starr to transform himself from offender to wronged party, even as he has continued his ludicrous word games over what does and doesn't constitute sexual relations. Polls taken after the president's grand jury testimony was televised indicate that most voters still don't want him impeached.

The situation has reached the point where in many minds Mr. Starr is now in the dock as much as Mr. Clinton is. While the president for all his glibness has not yet talked his way out of trouble, he has effectively shifted some of the focus in the controversy from his behavior and his obvious lies to Mr. Starr's motivation and his means to nail his quarry.

This shift both infuriates the House Republicans and complicates their task of impeaching Mr. Clinton. They have the votes to do so, but as long as the public doesn't want it to happen, and fellow-Republican Starr is painted as leading a political lynching party, they risk a backlash in public opinion.

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 9/25/98

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