Call for witnesses would provide only drama

January 18, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- No one knowledgeable about politics believes that the case being presented against President Clinton is going to make any significant change in the outcome of the impeachment trial in the Senate.

Barring some dramatic new revelations, it's too much of a stretch to imagine 12 Democratic senators voting to remove the president from office. That is what would be needed to put together the required two-thirds vote if all the Republicans voted for removal.

And that two-thirds vote, in turn, would require the Senate to decide not only that the president committed crimes, but also that those crimes qualified as serious enough to justify removing a president and reversing the decision of the electorate.

But the House prosecutors -- particularly Reps. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas and James Rogan of California -- have spelled out the case against the president in a compelling enough way to make it difficult for the Senate to justify a refusal to hear any witnesses.

There has been no startling new information in the case being made by the House. But the House managers put it before the Senate and, more to the point, the television cameras, in terms that brought into sharp focus the conflicts, contradictions and ambiguities in the testimony gathered by the grand jury.

There isn't much doubt, of course, about the basic story line. Whatever he chooses to call it, Mr. Clinton had a sexual relationship with a 22-year-old intern on the White House staff and then lied about it to everyone who might have had a stake in knowing.

The only question here, if it even qualifies as a question, is whether the convoluted way Mr. Clinton testified about it constituted perjury.

More inconsistencies and ambiguities arise on the question of whether the president tried to obstruct justice. And, as Mr. Hutchinson argued with both clarity and force, those inconsistencies might be resolved if the Senate hears from Betty Currie, the president's loyal secretary, and lawyer Vernon Jordan, the president's friend.

It is hard for anyone to swallow Mr. Clinton's story that he had to talk to Ms. Currie that Sunday to refresh his own recollection of whether he had been alone with Ms. Lewinsky or whether she had been the one who was sexually aggressive.

And it is even harder for anyone to accept at face value the account by Mr. Clinton and Mr. Jordan of how and why they came to spend so much time and effort to find a job in New York for a young woman of no special talent or political connections. From a distance, it looks very much like a case of let's get her out of town.

But it is far from certain that hearing from Mrs. Currie and Mr. Jordan is going to clear up these matters. And even if their testimony made the case for obstruction of justice stronger, there is still the basic issue of whether the crimes the president committed qualify as "high crimes and misdemeanors" and justify removing him from office.

The immediate issue, however, is whether the House prosecutors were convincing enough to make it politically difficult for the Senate to balk at witnesses.

On the face of it, the prudent course for the Republicans would be to end the process as expeditiously as possible. The opinion polls all show that Americans think the process has been too partisan and too long, which suggests voters would not welcome witnesses. Meanwhile, the Senate Republicans have tried to not appear blindly partisan.

But the strength of Mr. Hutchinson's and Mr. Rogan's presentations is that so far, they were less strident than special prosecutor Kenneth Starr had been in presenting his findings to the House Judiciary Committee. Nor did their rhetoric have the kind of moralistic tone that offends voters when it comes from politicians.

Whether the House managers have changed anything is impossible to measure at this stage. But if the Republicans want to bring some witnesses into the well of the Senate, that decision may be easier to justify to their constituents.

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

Pub Date: 1/18/99

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