Persecuting the notorious prosecutor

November 19, 1998|By Linda Chavez

NOT SINCE the first Christian faced the lions in the Roman Coliseum has one man entered so dangerous an arena as independent counsel Kenneth Starr does when he appears before the House Judiciary Committee today. So here's my advice, Mr. Starr, based on my own experience having served on the Judiciary Committee staff during the Nixon impeachment inquiry and having testified before the committee numerous times.

The most important thing to remember is that these hearings are not a trial before an impartial judge or jury expected to render a fair verdict based on the evidence. A congressional committee is about the last place on earth you should expect an unbiased airing of facts. You won't change any minds on the committee itself, so don't even bother trying.

Your audience is the American public -- and this is your one chance to persuade them that you are not a puritanical zealot out to destroy a popular president. You have only a single opportunity to make a decent impression with a public that has never heard you speak -- and you'd better do so in the first five minutes, or they'll tune you out.

Second, don't mention sex. Americans don't want to hear about President Clinton's weird peccadilloes. And they already know he lies, so you don't need to spend a lot of time proving the point. But you should explain why lying under oath is different from other lying, how it undermines our judicial system.

An abuse of power

Your most important task, however, is to convince the American public that Mr. Clinton has abused his office. Richard Nixon's impeachment hearings provide a good guide. The public didn't care much about the Watergate burglary itself, but they did care about the elaborate cover-up that involved both the president and his staff. More importantly, they cared about Nixon's enemies list and the way he used federal agencies to hound and destroy people who disagreed with his policies.

Of course, proving that Nixon was a vindictive, mean hombre -- even to a public that had just re-elected him in a landslide -- was child's play compared with your task. You've got to show that the "I feel your pain" empathizer-in-chief is really an abusive politician who forces others to lie for him.

Although your initial referral to the Judiciary Committee didn't mention it, you really must say something about the travelgate affair. There is no clearer case of this president's abuse of power than his treatment of Billy Dale, the former career employee who headed the White House travel office until Hillary Rodham Clinton decided the job should go to a Clinton crony.

The president had every right to replace Mr. Dale -- and any other member of the White House staff -- but he did not have a right to sic the FBI, the IRS and the Justice Department on him and his entire family.

The last thing to remember is that you can't count on any help from the Republicans during these hearings. Even before the election results turned GOP resolve on impeachment to mush, Republicans had not figured out how to use public hearings to their advantage. The Democrats are always better prepared and more disciplined than the Republicans. And the Democrats on Judiciary are the best attack dogs in the party's kennel.

Your only protection is to control your temper and remember that the committee members aren't the ones you must convince. It's the rest of us watching who really count.

Linda Chavez is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/19/98

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