Little illuminated by Starr testimony Counsel's testimony: Makes strong case to dislike president, little case to impeach him.

November 20, 1998

THE NATION'S understanding of the issue of impeaching President Clinton was not greatly enhanced by independent counsel Kenneth Starr's testimony Thursday to the House Judiciary Committee.

There was high drama and a powerful statement of reasons to find fault with President Clinton for devious behavior under legal fire. But it was a restatement of Mr. Starr's written referral that, except in some tangential matters, did not add to our knowledge of the events and legal issues in question.

Mr. Starr's presentation omitted serious discussion of what constitutes an impeachable offense. This is an argument of which the former solicitor general is highly capable. He chose not to make it in prepared testimony, denying the committee his expert guidance.

At the root of Mr. Starr's case is the claim that Mr. Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky was a private matter, but that Mr. Clinton's behavior in litigation flowing from it was public.

Yet the alleged lying in a deposition was about a matter that a judge ruled not material to a lawsuit that she then dismissed. The parties recently settled out of court. Very likely that would make Mr. Clinton's statements moot.

Could that constitute impeachable "high crimes and misdemeanors"? Hardly.

Mr. Starr accused the president of lying to the grand jury about his previous deposition, as though avoiding an impeachable offense is an impeachable offense.

But when cross-examined by the Democratic minority counsel and committee members, Mr. Starr sounded remarkably like Mr. Clinton, rephrasing questions, failing to recollect, changing subjects to deflect accusations. People who are treated like defendants by hostile lawyers, when well prepared, tend to sound like defendants.

The committee showed its political divisions. The atmosphere was wholly adversarial. Mr. Starr, like Mr. Clinton, is extremely skilled at presenting things his own way, but he does not fare so well when grilled by adversaries.

Mr. Starr made clear that on the matters known as Whitewater, Travelgate and Filegate, he could find nothing to justify impeachment.

Having failed to get Mr. Clinton or Hillary Rodham Clinton on the matters he set out to investigate, Mr. Starr made his best case for reprimanding the president on unrelated matters.

Pub Date: 11/20/98

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