This Week

Issue: "Campaigning from the closet," Sept. 19, 1998

Signed, sealed, delivered

Breakfast at the White House on Sept. 9 didn't go well. Like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar, President Clinton reiterated over and over to Democratic leaders how sorry he was, and how he promised never to let them down again. But his own party's leaders didn't seem to buy that line. Those who spoke to the press after the meeting sounded thoroughly unconvinced, saying as little as possible with little visible conviction. For the embattled president, things went downhill from there. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), the senior Democrat in the Senate, chastised Mr. Clinton from the floor of the chamber. On the other side of the Capitol, at a bipartisan meeting of House leaders, it was difficult to tell Republicans from Democrats as members of all political persuasions put on their longest faces and spoke in somber tones about their heavy duty to pursue the truth, wherever that might lead. It was at 4 p.m., however, that the real political drama began. About 15 minutes after notifying Speaker Newt Gingrich, Ken Starr finally sent his long-awaited report to Capitol Hill. Oprah fans in many cities watched, stunned, as local stations broke away with live pictures of box after box-36 in all-being loaded into a police van on the east side of the Capitol. In the boxes: thousands of pages of transcribed testimonies, the fruit of months of work by Mr. Starr's grand juries. The delivery itself was the fruit of a frantic, last-minute push to wrap up the long-running investigation. Lawyers from the Office of the Independent Counsel worked almost around the clock beginning Labor Day weekend to produce a report so detailed that even the executive summary was said to run 445 pages. Ironically, the surprise deadline may have been set by Mr. Clinton himself. After his personal lawyer, David Kendall, demanded an advance copy of the report so the president could prepare a rebuttal, Mr. Starr's team feared a series of legal challenges designed to delay the inevitable. So the independent counsel went on the offensive, putting his report in the hands of congressional leaders before they expected it, and before the president's legal team could stop it. And so, after months of nervous anticipation, Congress finally held the future of the Clinton administration in its hands. Four years and $40 million all came down to this: 36 cardboard boxes in a dark green van. The fighting began almost immediately. With Mr. Starr's evidence under lock and key just blocks from the Capitol, House leaders began debating what to do with it. A potentially divisive rule vote was set for the next day to determine how the evidence would be handled. Though grand jury testimony will be kept confidential to protect the privacy of witnesses, Republicans promised quick release of the report's executive summary, most likely via the Internet, since many details would likely be too sensitive for broadcast news or family newspapers. That scenario would likely damage further Mr. Clinton's already tattered public image. The release of the Starr report-and the sense that its contents would be a national embarrassment-amplified calls for the president to step down. "I think the president should resign," Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, told WORLD. "It's the only dignified thing to do. He has admitted lying to the American people. He has admitted to a sexually abusive relationship-given the power difference between these two people, it's classic sexual abuse. I think he clearly should resign. He can use it as an opportunity to teach America that there are in fact consequences to wrongdoing." If that doesn't happen, Mr. Inglis said the president is entitled to the same presumption of innocence granted to all defendants in criminal trials. "We should treat the polls as completely irrelevant. We should try to put out of mind the fact that the election is in November. We should put partisanship aside and look at this report. We must only consider the evidence in those 36 boxes." That won't be easy, of course-or quick. Just the physical duplication of the report will take time. A single copy for each congressional office would require nearly 240,000 pages of Xeroxing. Given the rule debate and the problems of distribution, Mr. Inglis on Sept. 10 expected to have to wait another week to receive a copy of the report. Still, he said, the drama was drawing inexorably to a close. "Justice is not rushed, nor is it served by inordinate delay. I think the American people just want to get this behind them. We have a very impaired president, which means we have a nation at risk. We need a leader of the free world with the moral authority to lead the world. It's a serious problem for all of us as Americans."

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