Cover Story

Clinton's last dance?

President Clinton tangoed as his lawyers danced around the facts that now occupy center stage in his Senate impeachment trial. But will their fancy footwork be enough to save the Clinton presidency?

Issue: "Justice to the Chief," Jan. 23, 1999

in Washington - While Washington burned, Bill Clinton danced. At a state dinner for President Carlos Menem of Argentina on Jan. 11, Mr. Clinton grabbed the nearest woman-the wife of the Argentine minister of economy-and did the tango, South America's seductive love dance. Mrs. Clinton passed up a chance for a lovey-dovey photo op with her husband; she danced instead with Mr. Menem. Hours earlier, the president's legal team had submitted its legal brief to the Senate, dancing around the truth with language every bit as deliberate as the carefully choreographed steps of a tango. The 13-page brief was delivered to the Senate in a sealed envelope just 12 minutes before the noon deadline. In it, White House lawyers denied point-blank that the president had committed perjury or obstruction of justice, signaling that they may finally dispute some of the factual evidence in the Starr report. But the White House brief also fell back on more Clintonesque verbal hair-splitting, arguing, for instance, that the president had not lied when he denied having a "sexual relationship" with Monica Lewinsky because he admitted, after all, to having "inappropriate intimate contact" with her. Much of the Clinton brief focused on the question of punishment, arguing that even if every charge against the president were true, that still would not merit removal from office: "The charges in the articles do not rise to the level of 'high Crimes and Misdemeanors' as contemplated by the Founding Fathers." The House blasted such logic in its 105-page reply. Henry Hyde and his colleagues insisted that under the White House's standard, no president would ever again face impeachment because "the bar will be set so high that only a convicted felon or a traitor will need to be concerned." Not only would the bar of impeachment be placed too high, but also the bar of presidential behavior would be placed too low. Social conservatives have long argued that it was the president's personal character flaws that led to his public lawbreaking. Acquittal by the Senate would render future debates about candidates' character almost irrelevant. If a sexual predator and serial liar is worthy of the highest office in the land, who could ever be judged unworthy? As presidents sunk to lower and lower levels of morality and character, a whole new dance would be introduced in Washington: the limbo. With Democrats worried about protecting their president and Republicans focused on setting a precedent, the battle was officially joined. House prosecutors began their oral arguments on Jan. 14, with Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin presenting the opening statement. After 24 hours of the prosecution's arguments, spread over several days, the White House legal team would then be given the same time to argue the president's version of events. The strict schedule was widely viewed as a minor miracle. When the trial began on Jan. 7, Republicans and Democrats appeared hopelessly deadlocked and unable to formulate ground rules that both sides could accept as fair. After days of fruitless negotiation, Senate majority leader Trent Lott and Tom Daschle, his Democratic counterpart, called a highly unusual, last-minute meeting of all 100 senators behind closed doors. The meeting reportedly got off to a rocky start, until Robert Byrd, the 82-year-old Democratic patriarch from West Virginia, took the floor. "Not only is William Jefferson Clinton on trial," he told his colleagues, "but this august body is on trial. The White House has sullied itself, and the House has fallen into a black pit of partisanship and self-indulgence. The Senate is teetering on the brink of that same black pit.... We have to lift our eyes to higher things, disdain any more of the salacious muck that has soiled the gowns of so many." With that, the senators voted 100-0 in favor of a plan that would start the trial and delay decisions about calling witnesses. The compromise only put off the hard issues, however. The first of those will come after both sides have presented their initial arguments; Democrats then get the opportunity to move for dismissal. A united Democratic Party would need six Republican defectors to close the trial at that point, but noted GOP moderates, including John Chafee (R-R.I.), have already said publicly that "we want to hear this case out, and I think I'd be surprised if a motion to dismiss at that early stage prevailed." If the case is not dismissed, Republicans then will press for witnesses before allowing an up-or-down vote on the president's guilt. The White House wants to avoid witnesses at all costs, but that leaves Democrats in the ironic position of defending the Starr report-the very report they were savagely attacking just four months earlier. Thus, while the president tangoed, his supporters in Congress were doing the twist. "Remember," said the White House last September in its official rebuttal to Mr. Starr, "this report is based entirely on allegations obtained by a grand jury-reams and reams of allegations and purported 'evidence' that would never be admitted in court, that has never been seen by the president or his lawyers, and that was not subject to cross-examination or any other traditional safeguards to ensure its credibility." Deputy White House chief of staff John Podesta, responding in September to Mr. Starr's allegations that Betty Currie had asked Secret Service personnel not to record all of Monica Lewinsky's comings and goings, replied, "You don't know what all the evidence is. I don't know what all the evidence is. We're working off of a sheet that Mr. Starr has written. It's his version of events; it's his allegations. He's picked and chosen untested testimony that has not been subject to cross-examination. Why don't we wait and let a fair process develop where we can see what really happened?" Four months later, given the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and dispute evidence, twisting Clinton allies were suddenly satisfied with the job Judge Starr had done. "I would suggest that if we start calling witnesses at the end of the month, we're gonna find absolutely nothing that we don't already know," insisted Louisiana Sen. John Breaux. "We know enough of the facts now to make a decision so we can go on to other things." The White House, in fact, officially agreed to "stipulate" the Starr report if the Senate would promise not to call witnesses. That means that the president would, in effect, admit the facts of the report and argue his case on some other basis-presumably that the stipulated facts of lying and obstructing justice are not worthy of removal from office. The flip-flop on the Starr report wasn't the only contradiction on display as the trial got underway. After offering a $1 million reward for dirt on congressional Republicans, pornographer Larry Flynt accused Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) of carrying on an affair with the third Mrs. Barr while still married to the second Mrs. Barr. The congressman replied that he had "never perjured himself" in a court proceeding. The White House, meanwhile, was silent about such accusations. Despite the president's oft-repeated dismay over the "politics of personal destruction," he refused to condemn publicly Mr. Flynt's crusade, thus giving silent assent to the character assassination of his political foes. As the "trial of the century" got underway in the Old Senate Chamber, some of the supposedly impartial jurors, like Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), were already declaring the case a "pile of dung." Seven of his fellow jurors, meanwhile, tangoed alongside the defendant at the Argentine State dinner: Richard Bryan (D-Nev.), Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), and Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Henry Hyde and company had to know they faced an uphill battle in convincing 51 senators to allow more than an abbreviated show trial. There were glimmers of hope that the president's accusers might yet get their day in court, however. Sen. Chafee announced not only that he was opposed to early dismissal, but also that he favored calling witnesses. "I think in fairness, for the presentation of a case in which we're trying to arrive at the truth, that some witnesses are legitimately required." Another prominent pragmatist, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), echoed that sentiment: "I don't know how I can make a decision," she told Fox News, "without hearing from someone firsthand." Witnesses or no witnesses, almost no one expects the Senate to muster the 67 votes needed to remove Mr. Clinton from office. The president would love to claim that as vindication, but even Democrats seem determined that the historical record show some degree of guilt. Sen. Feinstein is already drafting a censure resolution that she intends to introduce at the conclusion of oral arguments. The censure effort, however, faces an unlikely impediment: Ken Starr. Many Republicans have already announced that Mr. Clinton must affix his signature to any censure bill-in effect admitting his guilt. But the president, fearful of criminal prosecution once his term expires, is unlikely to make any such admission without a deal from Judge Starr. According to a former attorney in the Office of Independent Counsel, Mr. Starr is unwilling to cut such a deal, despite encouragement from some of his advisers. Indeed, Mr. Starr's indictment of Julie Hiatt Steele-handed down just as the Senate was taking up the impeachment question-showed that the Independent Counsel is still a danger to the Clinton Administration. Ms. Steele gained notoriety when she disputed the testimony of Kathleen Willey, the Virginia widow who charged that Mr. Clinton had made unwanted sexual advances on her in 1993. According to the indictment, Ms. Steele lied to two grand juries investigating the matter, thus bolstering the president's denials and shattering the credibility of Mrs. Willey. The message to Bill Clinton was clear: The final Senate vote, whenever it comes, will not be the end of his legal headaches. As many in Washington do the tango, the twist, and the limbo, Mr. Starr just keeps on working. Republicans may yet be grateful that in his strict Church of Christ upbringing, dancing was forbidden.

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