Plenty of blame on all sides in impeachment quagmire

February 01, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The Senate's agonizing over whether and how to interrogate witnesses as part of the impeachment trial is much ado about nothing.

The witnesses are being summoned for depositions not because of the testimony they may give but instead because the Senate Republicans yielded to the insistence of the House prosecutors making the case against President Clinton.

To do otherwise, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott decided, would be to show contempt for fellow Republicans already in political hot water. That the contempt may have been earned is beside the point.

But the notion that the depositions are going to change anything is laughable. This is not a courtroom drama on cable television in which the devilishly clever questioning by the House lawyers is going to force damaging admissions and send the reporters rushing to their telephones.

This is not Perry Mason. Monica Lewinsky is not going to suddenly reverse herself and confess the president told her to lie under oath to save his skin. The most she can tell everyone is that she and Betty Currie have different recollections of how the gifts from the president came to be moved from her apartment to under Ms. Currie's bed.

Vernon Jordan is not going to suddenly repent and testify that, yes, now that you mention it, Mr. Clinton asked me to find her a job so we could get her out of town. Why else would I go to all that trouble for some White House intern? Get real.

And as for Sidney Blumenthal, the First Sycophant, it's impossible to even imagine anything he could say that would alter the situation. So what all this is about is the determination of the Republican zealots to use every opportunity to rub Mr. Clinton's nose in the dirt he created. For these Republicans, it is a case of pleasing their base of support whatever the broader political consequences.

The Republicans aren't the only hypocrites. The Democratic defenders of Mr. Clinton are wringing their hands and agonizing aloud about the dignity of the Senate and whether it would be shattered if Ms. Lewinsky were allowed "in the well of the Senate." What they are trying to avoid, of course, is the spectacle of Ms. Lewinsky's testimony, either live or on videotape, being seen by the American people.

But the notion that the well of the Senate is some cathedral that will be tarnished if "that woman" is allowed to testify there is garbage. The well already has survived many unseemly spectacles, such as some senators casting votes and thereby selling themselves out to their fat-cat contributors.

Hypocrisy is coming from the White House, too. Presidential flacks complain daily about how the Senate Republicans are keeping the country from doing its serious business by stringing the impeachment trial out for another two weeks.

What is not mentioned, of course, is that the reason the nation and the Congress have been diverted by this scandal for so long is that Mr. Clinton lied to everyone involved -- his staff, his cabinet and the country at large -- about what had happened, thus providing the fodder for independent counsel Kenneth Starr. If the president was in such a hurry to get around to Social Security and Medicare, he could have solved the problem with a little candor a year ago.

In fact, all the talk about getting around to the nation's concerns is overdrawn at best. Although there may be some progress on issues at the margins, the odds are heavily against the Democratic president and the Republican Congress negotiating a bipartisan agreement on long-term reform of the entitlement programs. Anything that significant would require a measure of trust that is obviously lacking now and will be difficult to restore.

The bottom line is that the Senate decision to depose those witnesses is unlikely to do anything to make an ugly situation either better or worse. The Republicans don't have the votes to remove Mr. Clinton from office. But they do have the votes to further his embarrassment -- even if it backfires against them politically.

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

Pub Date: 2/01/99

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