Starr won't be terrible witness Democrats have hoped for

November 19, 1998|By Sandy Grady

WASHINGTON -- Sometime after dawn today, the networks will start trundling in enough TV equipment to cover a small war. They'll plug in cameras, audio equipment and lights for Act 1, Scene 1 of President Clinton's impeachment drama.

But on Day One it will not be Mr. Clinton or his sexual misbehavior on trial.

The cameras will focus closely on the bespectacled, beaming mug of independent counsel Kenneth Starr, the prosecutor most Americans love to hate.

Sure, commentators will remind us that this is the same room where 24 years ago Richard Nixon's fate was deliberated.

But cut to the chase. This will really be "S-Day," the moment Mr. Starr emerges as public bulls-eye.

Low approval rating

Until now, Mr. Starr has lived a butterfly existence, popping out of his cocoon to chat with reporters in his McLean, Va., driveway. His funny little smile during his pursuit of Mr. Clinton helped make him one of America's most detested figures -- his 58 percent disapproval almost as low as that of the media's or Saddam Hussein's.

As Judiciary chairman Henry Hyde's first and maybe only witness, Mr. Starr has the bonanza of a two-hour monologue in which he can defend his 10-month, $4.4 million chase. But face it, his motive is to rehabilitate his caricatured image as a sex-obsessed gumshoe.

So how will Mr. Starr do?

Comparable dramatic witnesses on Capitol Hill have been Supreme Court Justice wannabe Robert Bork and Iran-contra conniver Ollie North. Which one will Mr. Starr emulate, the judge or the Marine?

Mr. Bork's bearded, professorial manner and his high-handed lecturing on "natural law," gave viewers a queasy distaste. Their distrust of Mr. Bork's high-falutin' persona and conservative slant cost a high-court seat.

North was a different critter. From the moment he stood tall in his bemedaled uniform, he had the Iran-contra committee playing defense. He was combative, forceful, and despite legal tangles for lying to Congress, he became a controversial hero. I doubt if Mr. Starr will flop like Mr. Bork or emerge as a triumphant maverick like North. But he'll probably perform better in the camera's eye than his enemies expect.

In the first place, Mr. Starr's a slick, savvy lawyer tested in tension-packed forums. And he has a mountain of evidence against Mr. Clinton to pontificate -- although save us from more blather about cigars, orgasms and where he touched her.

Second, the underdog factor. As Iran-contra prosecutor Lawrence Walsh says, "I think he deserves all the scrutiny he's getting, but I think he'll do well. Public sympathy in these hearings is with the witness." Third, Democrats on the committee are loaded with pent-up venom toward Mr. Starr. Their bombast could backfire and make Mr. Starr an undeserved martyr.

Loyal opposition

The Democrats' best strategy would be too coolly restrain such anti-Starr warriors as Barney Frank, Maxine Waters and Jerry Nadler. Let their counsel Abbe Lowell and perhaps Mr. Clinton's attorneys handle a surgical cross examination of Mr. Starr.

If Democrats chill their political grandstanding, their hired interrogators might have a chance to pin Mr. Starr for over-the-line tactics in trying to bring down a president for private misdeeds.

Questions: By having Linda Tripp wear a body wire in her Jan. 13 meeting with Monica Lewinsky, did Mr. Starr jump the gun before Attorney General Janet Reno approved his investigation? Did he break Justice rules by not allowing Ms. Lewinsky to have a lawyer present in that day's confrontation?

How does Mr. Starr explain his cozy relationship with Paula Jones' lawyers? By allowing Ms. Tripp to give details of Ms. Lewinsky's sexcapade to Ms. Jones' group, was Mr. Starr setting up Mr. Clinton's entrapment?

Did Mr. Starr leak secret grand-jury information to the media? Did money from a foundation bankrolled by Pennsylvania billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife go to Whitewater witness David Hale?

By the way, Mr. Starr, whatever happened to Whitewater, filegate, travelgate, other dry holes on which you blew $40 million?

Sure, Democrats relish bullying the bully -- like throwing snowballs at a guy in a top hat. But this impeachment showdown may not grip the public with intensity of other Capitol Hill dramas -- Watergate, the McCarthy hearings, the Clarence Thomas comedy.

Opinions are set in stone. People roll their eyes in disgust at Monicagate. Seven out of 10 don't want Mr. Clinton impeached (ABC poll); almost as many want the scandal machine stopped. Even Mr. Hyde, an Illinois Republican, groans, "God, I wish this would all go away."

But, ah, the irony -- for one day, Mr. Starr, not the president, seeking redemption in the TV pulpit. Mr. Starr's spokesman Charlie Bakaly complains his boss has been "demonized." Does he imagine Mr. Starr's recital of Bill & Monica embraces will wipe out his cartoon as puritanical bloodhound?

I suspect Mr. Starr, like Mr. Clinton, will muddle through.

There are no winners in this pornographic sleaze, only wounded survivors.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

Pub Date: 11/19/98

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