Features

The walk, the march

National | Scandal outrated pro-life coverage, but who gets last laugh?

Issue: "Clinton: Under seige," Feb. 6, 1998

In Washington, January 22 was the Day of the Walk. Kenneth Starr, independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation, walked perhaps 25 feet in a "photo op" that whipped the media into a frenzy. Meanwhile, some six blocks away, well over 50,000 pro-lifers began the long walk from the White House to the Supreme Court to mark the 25th anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade decision. Exhausted, perhaps, by the earlier press conference/brawl, the media gave the March for Life a collective yawn.

Admittedly, Mr. Starr's walk was huge. After three years and $30 million, he finally appeared to have something on the scandal-ridden Clinton administration. Hundreds of media representatives packed the sidewalk outside the independent counsel's headquarters at 1001 Pennsylvania Avenue. A lone policeman tried to keep order and maintain a clear path from the building's front doors to the bank of microphones 25 feet away. No good. Reinforcements were called in. Soon several dozen blue shirts were on hand, physically pushing reporters out of the way. If they'd been carrying pro-life placards instead of microphones, the reporters might have been hauled off to jail under RICO, the federal statute used to clear the sidewalks outside abortion clinics.

When Mr. Starr finally stepped out the front door, even two dozen police couldn't maintain order. The silver-haired lawyer immediately disappeared from view as cameramen trampled each other to get the closest shot. "I can't get him, I can't get him!" a CBS cameraman yelled frantically into his walkie-talkie. "Down in front!" screamed the unfortunate reporters at the rear of the pack. Someone knocked off a couple of microphones from the huge cluster in front of the temporary dais.

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"Do you think he's okay?" muttered an aide from Mr. Starr's office. At least one observer didn't think so. The former Marine waded into the crowd, pushing reporters against policemen, hoping to provoke more active protection for the mild-mannered independent counsel.

Just down the street, pro-lifers gathering behind the White House would have loved to have that problem. A large camera stand set up directly across from the speakers' platform was nearly deserted. The few reporters on hand tended to wear press passes from student newspapers rather than The Washington Post. Not that some members of the crowd here lacked color or quotability for media leaders who wanted to characterize pro-lifers as unconventional. Two men in sackcloth handed out literature while wearing sandwich boards that read, "Free Paul Hill (protector of the innocent). Execute abortionists (murderers)." Nearby, a young man with dirty dreadlocks and a silver stud in his nose carried a placard touting "Pagans for Life." Great pictures for the evening news, but no one ever saw them.

Still, if pro-lifers felt slighted by their lack of media coverage, they could take some solace in a joke making the rounds of Washington's legal community on Jan. 22. Q: Who's the biggest loser in the Clinton scandal? A: Harry Blackmun. It was Blackmun, of course, who wrote the infamous Roe vs. Wade decision, and he could have expected liberal reporters to use the anniversary to praise his judicial legacy. Instead, he too was ignored on his big day.

Okay, it's not a terribly funny joke; lawyers aren't known for their sense of humor. But there may yet be a really good punchline: Thanks to Mr. Starr's short, historic walk to the microphones, a pro-life Republican may have a better-than-ever chance of recapturing the White House in 2000. With two abortion-upholding justices expected to retire soon after the next election, a president who sticks to pro-life commitments could finally secure the 5-4 majority needed to overturn Roe. After 30 years or so, Mr. Blackmun's "legacy" might be erased altogether. For the thousands of marchers making their way down Constitution Avenue on a wintry day, that would be the last, best laugh.

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