Partisans, not statesmen

November 25, 1998|By Harry Rosenfeld

ALBANY, N.Y. -- Without question, the best aspect of last week's impeachment hearings in the House Judiciary Committee was that television coverage gave all Americans the opportunity to watch it from beginning to end.

The people could get a crack at what happened without the pluses or minuses that come from having the information refracted through the news media's prisms.

The hearings underscored what already had been plain to see. This impeachment process is a strictly party-line affair.

It is not likely that independent counsel Kenneth Starr's appearance in such a public forum changed a lot of minds. Republicans undoubtedly believe that his testimony raised his public credibility.

Democrats, on the other hand, will point to his frequently meandering responses as reflecting evasion and obfuscation.

But what was inescapably beyond dispute was the hearing's stark partisanship. All Republicans defended the independent counsel and attacked President Clinton. All Democrats attacked Mr. Starr, without, however, spending time defending the president's behavior.

Neither side chose to use the hours of testimony to explore the legal validity of the charges against the president to determine whether they constituted offenses meriting impeachment.

Most interesting was the revelation that Mr. Starr had concluded a long time ago that his lengthy investigations of Whitewater, Travelgate and Filegate did not warrant any charges against the president. As the Democrats gleefully pointed out more than once, Mr. Starr, a supposedly independent prosecutor, withheld those findings from the public until after the elections.

So the elected representatives of the American people, considering impeachment, are left with Monica Lewinsky and nothing but.

The committee's Republicans relentlessly depicted Mr. Clinton's actions in trying to cover up his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky as qualifying for impeachment. They tried to get Mr. Starr to testify that some of Mr. Clinton's behavior constituted bribery, which could be impeachable. But the independent counsel carefully skirted saying that himself, obviously pleased that his questioners nevertheless persisted with their implications.

So, too, with the Republicans' iteration that Mr. Clinton committed perjury before the grand jury. Time and again, Mr. Starr meticulously walked around that allegation, saying instead that the president lied under oath, which in legal terms is a distinction with a real difference. But Mr. Starr did not seem unhappy as his GOP questioners played the game of equating the two offenses.

In all those hours of statements, questions and answers, much was said about perjury before the grand jury, but nothing, or almost nothing, about what constituted that perjury. That seems to be the crux of the case against Mr. Clinton, seeing that he has admitted an inappropriate relationship with the White House intern.

It is now obvious that if the Republicans on the committee get to have their way, they will vote for articles of impeachment. In all likelihood, all committee Republicans will vote for the articles and all the Democrats against.

The entire House of Representatives, in another clearly partisan vote, could send the articles of impeachment for trial in the Senate. The election returns suggest that the Republican leadership is inclined to seek another solution, seeing that public opinion has already punished the party for pushing impeachment and not permitting the nation "to put the matter behind us."

But that could change if the blood of partisanship is up and Starr's performance energizes the hard-core ideologues in their impeachment drive.

In the Senate, the odds are the president would not be convicted, again along party lines. And that underscores what has been wrong from the beginning. The charges against Clinton have been immersed in political partiality. No impeachment should succeed as a partisan venture. A president should be removed from office only when there is broad political support across party lines.

A strict party-line vote will not be accepted by the people and would leave a bitter legacy, undermining the presidency and the people's confidence in their government.

Harry Rosenfeld is editor-at-large of the Albany (N.Y.) Times Union.

Pub Date: 11/25/98

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