Starr defends probe, integrity First day of hearings ends in showdown with Clinton's lawyer

'We fought to a draw'

Democrats fail to land knockout punch in marathon hearing

Impeachment Hearings

November 20, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In a tense finale to the first presidential impeachment hearing since Watergate, Kenneth W. Starr squared off last night with President Clinton's personal lawyer, defending his sprawling four-year investigation against blistering questions aimed at discrediting the drive to impeach the president.

The high-stakes showdown between Starr and David E. Kendall -- who have jousted bitterly for years -- culminated a more than 12-hour hearing in which the independent counsel methodically laid out the case that Clinton marshaled "the machinery of government and the powers of his office" to subvert the rule of law.

All day, Starr calmly parried a Democratic attack but broke little new ground on matters on which he has already submitted a written report to Congress. Not until late in the evening, when Kendall rattled Starr over grand jury leaks and allegations of witness intimidation, did Starr flash any anger or frustration.

"You talk of fairness," Starr snapped, his voice rising. "It's time for some fairness with respect to all of these charges that keep getting bandied about."

The hearing before the House Judiciary Committee began under a cloud of partisan acrimony. But Starr defused much of the tension, striving to project the image of a fair-minded public servant.

Indeed, his public persona yesterday was strikingly at variance with the obsessed, demonic prosecutor that Democrats have long portrayed him to be. Before Starr had uttered a word, the Judiciary Committee's lead Democrat, Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, labeled Starr "a federally paid sex policeman" who has "crossed the line into obsession," "spending millions of dollars to trap an unfaithful spouse."

But the Democrats did not seem to land any knockout punches, and Starr's supporters in the audience gave him a standing ovation at the end of the daylong session.

For weeks, the Democrats had been hoping to trip up Starr by forcing him to answer the criticism against him -- namely, that he has been hell-bent on examining a private sexual matter and that his investigation itself was guilty of its own abuses.

Starr contended that he was merely a devoted law enforcement officer intent on the truth, quizzically smiling at the Democrats as they hurled a barrage of barbed questions at him.

Perhaps the worst that Democrats could say of Starr's performance was that he came off as something of a Boy Scout, doggedly pursuing his case without heed to the consequences for the nation.

"We fought to a draw," conceded a committee Democratic attorney who spoke on condition of anonymity.

That said, even Republicans acknowledged that Starr's straight-faced performance was unlikely to sway many opinions, either on the sharply divided Judiciary Committee or in the House, where some Republicans fear that a vote for impeachment could amount to political suicide. Starr's presentation yesterday did little to advance the charges he presented in September: that the president lied under oath, obstructed justice, tampered with witnesses and abused the power of his office in a concerted effort to hide his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

Exoneration in 3 matters

If anything, Starr may have further slowed the drive toward impeachment by exonerating the president of any wrongdoing in the handling of FBI personnel files, the firing of the White House travel office and some aspects of the original Whitewater land deal. Republicans said those exonerations proved the fairness of Starr's investigation, though Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, a committee Democrat, questioned why Starr had not publicly cleared Clinton of the charges until now.

Some Republicans had been hoping that Starr would strike pay dirt on the FBI and travel office matters -- which revolve around charges of abuse of presidential power and have nothing to do with sex. Since the Lewinsky matter exploded in January, opinion polls have reflected a public resolutely opposed to impeachment over the sex scandal. And Republican losses in the elections Nov. 3 have been attributed, at least in part, to the party's mishandling of the Lewinsky affair.

Conservative Republicans, such as Rep. Mark E. Souder of Indiana, have asked the committee to delay any vote on articles of impeachment until the Whitewater, FBI files and travel office matters have been resolved. Now, apparently, they largely have been.

"Without public outrage, impeachment is hard to do, and it should be hard to do," conceded committee member Rep. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican. "And the truth of the matter is, we may never get public outrage on behalf of what the president did because some of the things that are Watergate-like we can't lay at the feet of the president."

Another committee Republican, Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio, said of Starr's impact: "It all will depend on what the American people think, because a lot of members are swayed on where the public is."

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