Starr's Watergate-style charges ring hollow Clinton's acts pale next to Nixon's deeds

October 04, 1998|By Stanley I. Kutler

THERE IS no end in sight to the relentless attacks on President Clinton, particularly from his partisan enemies who have rejected his presidency since 1993.

In a recent televised "town meeting," a Provo, Utah, woman told her congressman, a conservative Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, that she cried when George Bush lost to Clinton, and that she always has seen him as unfit.

She pleaded for his impeachment or resignation. She ran out of her allotted time.

The young woman is legion; she belongs to that one-third of the nation regarding Clinton's presidency as illegitimate. For these people, he is not the man who will take them to the Promised Land and abolish abortion, refight the Vietnam War, indict Ted Kennedy for Chappaquiddick, support the carrying of concealed weapons or restore Richard Nixon to respectability (alas, Clinton tried). If the president were to resign or be removed, much of the news about him would come to an abrupt end. Such possibilities are remote, and the assaults on him will continue until the end of his term on Jan. 20, 2001.

But the endgame for the current madness and the salacious talk that sustains it might be at hand. Clinton's historical reputation and legacy probably are sealed. Yet his taped grand jury appearance must have disappointed those who yearned for revelations about Clinton's connections to Whitewater or to Susan McDougal, Hillary Rodham Clinton's relationship to Vince Foster, Travelgate, Filegate and so on.

Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr and his team of disembodied prosecutors asked Clinton some 80 questions, all centered on their prurient inquisition regarding his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. The prosecutors asked no other questions about Starr's 4-year-old inquiry.

So much for Ken Starr's best shot; this case is all about sex. The prosecutors, however, gained a priceless admission from Lewinsky for Clinton's cause. "No one," she said, "ever asked me to lie, and I never was promised a job for my silence."

That quote is absent from Starr's report. If such is the testimony of the star witness, how can Starr prove his charges? He consciously pitched his report to his goal of recommending impeachment on the grounds of obstruction of justice and abuse of power. Throughout his inquiry, Starr repeatedly invoked memories of Archibald Cox, Leon Jaworski and the Watergate inquiry.

He banked on historical amnesia and gambled that merely uttering the dreaded terms - obstruction of justice, abuse of power - would remind the nation of Nixon's terrible deeds. But in Starr's report, the terms do not resonate. It is pretty lame stuff to compare Clinton's leading question to Betty Currie to Nixon's obstructing justice by approving payments to the Watergate burglars and abusing power by calling forth the Plumbers to ransack a citizen's private office.

Starr gave the public sexcapades but offered only the flimsiest links to possible impeachment charges. Of course, he did not offer contradictory statements or the exculpatory evidence he uncovered. Starr is a man on a mission, and the media have been his compliant accomplices. Much of the media swallowed his mantra of obstruction of justice and abuse of power charges. Starr has controlled the agenda to the exclusion of stories or leads supplied by others that might undermine his case. Witness the refusal to publish the Rep. Henry J. Hyde expose.

The self-conscious agonizing of the media is a sight to behold. Why should we have to settle for the hypocrisy of a sinner judging others for the same sin? Why risk the wrath of the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee? Remember, this crowd tolerated NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert's outlandish "report" that the Secret Service had "facilitated" the president's adventures.

The good news is that journalism schools undoubtedly will use this story as a case study in journalistic improprieties and excesses. The bad news is that it will probably do little good.

Stanley I. Kutler is the author of "Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes" and "The Wars of Watergate." This article first appeared in Newsday.

Pub Date: 10/04/98

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