More congressional clowning

November 23, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The House Judiciary Committee's impeachment hearing was a quintessential reflection of Congress. There was a lot of blather and partisanship. But nothing happened. We learned nothing of importance that we didn't know before independent counsel Kenneth Starr sat down at the witness table.

Nor did Mr. Starr's marathon testimony do anything to answer the question before the committee, which is whether President Clinton's shabby conduct qualifies as "high crimes and misdemeanors" and merits impeachment.

The only thing that seems to have happened is that the committee has given the American people new reason to be contemptuous of Congress and the political process. If these are serious people weighing the fate of a president, where are the clowns?

Mortal enemies

The hearing did serve to reinforce some things that were already abundantly clear. It is now obvious for all to see that Mr. Starr has a bone in his throat. He sees Mr. Clinton as evil incarnate and is determined to bring him down. But, of course, we already knew that.

It is also obvious that Mr. Starr has one of the tinnest of tin ears in a political city. Listening to him rationalize the treatment of Monica Lewinsky when she was waylaid at the Ritz-Carlton by Linda Tripp and his agents, you understand how divorced from reality he has become. They weren't really "holding" the young woman at that hotel and shopping mall. They were accosting someone who was even then committing a felony by planning to lie about her sex life with the president. On what planet has Mr. Starr been living?

Indeed, after watching Mr. Starr for eight or nine hours, you have to wonder about how we choose federal judges in this country. He served on the Court of Appeals for the Washington, D.C., circuit, which is supposed to be the second highest court in the land.

The hearing also served to define the dimensions of the partisanship on the committee. Although Rep. Henry Hyde may try to put a benign face on it, it is total. If the Republicans on the committee are going to send articles of impeachment to the full House, they are going to have to do it on Republican votes alone.

It is also clear that the Democrats' solidarity is limited to two specifics. They believe Mr. Starr has been a rogue prosecutor out of control who needs to be controlled. They don't believe the offenses of which Mr. Clinton is guilty qualify as justification for impeachment.

It is also noteworthy, however, that none of the Democrats sought to defend Mr. Clinton's conduct, either in terms of his behavior with the young White House intern or in terms of his lying about it in the Paula Jones deposition, his testimony before the grand jury and in any other forum in which he was asked for eight months.

These are not Democrats defending one of their own; many of them hold Mr. Clinton in contempt. These are Democrats determined to draw the line on how far the Republicans can go to force a president out of office.

The Republicans seem totally out of touch. Their decision to subpoena a clutch of witnesses in itself adds doubt to Mr. Hyde's announced determination to wind the whole thing up by the new year. The fact that they have included Mr. Clinton's personal attorney, Bob Bennett, adds even further doubt because it almost certainly assures a wrangle in the courts, which do not move with great speed during the Christmas season.

Running down the clock

And if the committee is tied up past the New Year, then the whole process must start again with its new membership. This is all happening while Americans overwhelmingly agree that they want the Lewinsky matter dropped and forgotten and Mr. Clinton allowed to serve out his final two years.

It is true, of course, that Congress must take its responsibility seriously when presented with the impeachment issue. It cannot be decided by poll results. The committee is going to have to vote. But a hearing like this one doesn't qualify as taking a responsibility seriously.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 11/23/98

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