Seems Like Old Times

Today, Wednesday, Adam Schiff takes the bold step of emerging from his SCIF and holding televised impeachment hearings at which he will play both prosecutor and judge. In the latter capacity, for example, he has already indicated he will not permit the defense to call its witnesses – a nice Soviet touch.

This is second time around for me. I wasn’t around for Andrew Johnson’s or Richard Nixon’s impeachment, but I covered Bill Clinton’s 1999 Senate trial from the press gallery of “the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body”. Then as now the process was bollocks. Witnesses? The Senators decided that, to preserve their “dignity”, Slick Willie’s accusers could only be permitted to testify by video, in camera, and only three of them. From my daily impeachment diary in the UK Telegraph, Canada’s National Post and various other papers around Her Majesty’s dominions:

“It’s too late now to get into Kathleen Willey,” snaps Republican moderate John Chafee. Doubtless, in moments of rueful reflection late in the evening, the President feels the same way.

The Senate is uninterested in the fate of Mrs Willey’s cat, who mysteriously disappeared shortly after her harrowing appearance on “60 Minutes”: When a black cat crosses Bill Clinton’s path, it’s the cat who’s out of luck. Many of us believe that this is the so-called “smoking tom” of the case – that somewhere there’s video footage of some shadowy Clinton operative caught with his fingers in the kitty. But, in this as so much else, the Senate is remarkably uncurious. As the agonized Alabammy Republican Richard Shelby puts it, “What we are interested in is dignity in the Senate. We are not interested in a pornographic movie.” Those various Clinton lady friends who testified anonymously in the Paula Jones depositions will not be permitted in the well of the chamber. It’ll be a cold day in hell before you hear “Senator John D Rockefeller IV, meet Jane Doe Number 5” on the Senate floor.

On the first day of the trial, the rather bossy lady in charge of the Senate press corps pronounced that as I was only the foreign press I had to sit at the back. By the end of the first week, the US media decided that the trial was “old news” not worth covering, and the bossy gal said I could sit where I liked: I could have hunted buffalo on the vast empty plains of the Senate press gallery.

I doubt the bigfeet will be that uninterested this time round. At any rate, the Clinton impeachment confirmed my contempt for Congressional “process”. The names mentioned below include not only the late John Conyers but also Clinton lawyer Greg Craig, who was recently indicted in the “Russia investigation”. However, as is traditional, unlike all the Republicans, the Democrat wound up beating the rap.

Herewith a few moments from those early days in late January 1999:

When impeachment moved to the Senate, we were solemnly told that these guys were the wise men of American politics: they wouldn’t take kindly to a lot of legalistic hairsplitting that insulted their intelligence. But it’s happened and they’re loving it!!!

Intelligent persons like David Kendall and Cheryl Mills are prepared to stand up and argue in public that the President has bravely confessed to a sexual affair, yet has never had sexual relations with that woman. If I follow the legal argument correctly, it doesn’t count as sexual relations unless it’s with Hillary Clinton. And, if you never have sexual relations de jure, what are you doing in a sexual harassment suit? If oral sex is non-sexual, then clearly the President should have been sued for non-sexual harassment.

No wonder the Senators have stopped taking notes. For, in this case, words make no sense. Consulting my own notes, I find Clinton attorney Greg Craig’s defiant evisceration of the perjury charge: The President “did not deny he had misled his aides”; he said, in fact, he had misled his aides.

So the President wasn’t lying about telling the truth; he was telling the truth about lying. If, instead of telling the truth about not telling the truth, he’d lied about lying, then he wouldn’t have been telling the truth.

But, just as he’d got that cleared up, Greg complicated things: “He never said that he told them only true things.” So the President hadn’t lied when he said he’d told the truth because, although he lied, he hadn’t exclusively lied, so therefore he was telling the truth about telling the truth, although he’d also have been telling the truth if he’d said he’d lied, and, although he’d have been lying if he said he hadn’t lied, he’d have been lying if he said he hadn’t told the truth.

Out on the floor, Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles dozes off. A faraway look comes into Strom Thurmond’s eyes, as if fondly recalling Miss South Carolina of 1908. But the Dems are lapping it up. For a day or two, they pretended to be grave: “I am undecided until I hear all the facts,” Vermonter Senator Patrick Leahy droned portentously.

But that’s so last week. Now they’ve figured they can skip the mock solemnity. Some are even giggling.

**

Mr Clinton is a famous “compartmentaliser”, not least on those occasions when he was on the ‘phone to congressmen discussing troop deployments to Bosnia while deploying Monica under the desk: above the waist, the Commander-in-Chief on company time; below, the Philanderer-in-Briefs on face time.

But today the Great Compartmentaliser has made compartmentalisers of the entire American political system: Republican senators proclaim that, like the President, they can readily distinguish between “the people’s business” and the impeachment trial. “I have no problem separating the office from the man,” Senator Phil Gramm tells me. No, indeed. Mr Gramm’s problem is separating the man from his office.

Congressman John Conyers is the senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, in which capacity he has advanced the sophisticated legal argument that the Republicans are “clinical psychopaths”. I wouldn’t want to make Mr Conyers sound charismatic: his ponderous monotone is at least as tedious as any on the GOP side. But he is African-American. So, although his appointment to the Senate defence team was vetoed, it would have added, as CNN noted approvingly, “a certain amount of diversity”.

This has become the latest refrain on the Clinton side. “Look at those Republican managers,” a Senate aide scoffs. “They’re all white males.”

“Yes, but the President’s a white male,” I say. “So’s your Senator. So are you.”

“What’s your point?” he says. “You’re not telling me this prosecution team looks like America?”

In the two years since their joint State of the Union appearance, the remorseless OJ-fication of Bill Clinton has passed way beyond metaphor: so, as Clinton attorney Charles Ruff insists on the evidence that black is white, his other defenders insist that the pasty white President is, in fact, black.

**

God is not yet on side. No sooner had former Arkansas senator Dale Bumpers returned to Washington to defend his old pal Bill than the Almighty rained down a barrage of freak tornadoes on their home state. Huge twisters (that’s a meteorological term, not a reference to the president and his lawyers) swept through Little Rock, leaving the Governor’s mansion looking like the opening scene in The Wizard of Oz. Contemplating one grisly scene of an upended double-wide (that’s a tornado-damaged trailer, not the president with his pants down), you couldn’t but ponder the wrath of God. Of course, God is not a US senator, lacking the necessary gravitas, solemnity, and dignity. If He were a senator, He might have recognised Dale Bumpers’ authentic southern-fried hogwash for what it was: an awesome invocation of senatorial self-importance. “Oh, colleagues!” wailed the former senator. “You have such an awesome responsibility!” What a stroke of genius to sign up ol’ Bumpers for the closing speech. Senators revere the Constitution, they revere this great Republic, they revere its history. But mostly they revere themselves. “One of the finest performances I’ve ever seen on the Senate floor!” cooed Iowa’s Tom Harkin, as ol’ Dale outlined his admiration for the President – one of the finest performances we’ve ever seen on the Oval Office floor.

Senator Harkin is, to modify Sherlock Holmes, the poodle who yaps too often. When Mr Kendall denied that the President obstructed justice in the Jones matter on the grounds that at the time he was too busy obstructing justice in the Lewinsky matter (I paraphrase), Mr Harkin was hard put to resist leaping up and yelping “Yesssssss!!!” His 44 colleagues are just about retaining their comportment, but we all know Tom is high-fiving for the entire caucus. “We’re all sick of this,” sneers Minority Whip Harry Reid. “This was jammed down our throat by the House,” – an alarmingly vivid image which psychotherapists would consider a classic case of “projection”.

On Friday, more considered Democrats were busy recycling David Kendall’s favourite Constitutional anecdote: the one in which George Washington holds up his tea and explains to Thomas Jefferson that the House is the cup but the Senate is the saucer – it’s there to catch any spillage and cool it down. The only thing wrong with this analogy is that in most US households and coffee shops these days the saucer is virtually obsolete: when the scalding coffee spills over, Americans catch it in their laps and then sue McDonald’s for six million bucks. And if the saucer is the Senate and the cup is the House, then what’s the spillage? The President?

Yesterday afternoon, West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd, the Senate’s dean of dignity, solon of solemnity and grampa of gravitas, threw in the towel. To prolong the trial, he said, “will only foster more of the same hallway press conferences.” In other words, as a fastidious and seemly man, he could no longer stomach wandering out into the corridor and seeing his more vulgar colleagues like Chuck Schumer acting as Slick Willie’s shills on obscure cable networks.

The old Byrd had a choice: If he were to be the lone Democrat to vote for witnesses, he would effectively be advertising his own obsolescence in a Clintonized party; or he could lead the call to dismiss, provide cover for any wavering colleagues, and thereby reaffirm his own relevance. It was no contest. Mr Byrd, a glowering Old Testament figure only last week, underwent radical Clintonization surgery and emerged talking about the need to begin “the process of healing.” The Secret Service agent who stands behind me in the press gallery carries a big, black bag full of gas masks “in the event of airborne chemical attack.” As the clouds of stale verbiage begin wafting up from Mr Byrd’s statement, I turned to grab a gas mask, but, with the air thick with senatorial compromise, the agent had fled in terror.

The trial has now moved on to its second phase, with the chief justice reading out questions handed to him by a Senate hostess, like some prototype 1950s game show. It grinds on like slow-motion ping-pong, made even more interminable by the refusal of one side to go through the motions. What happens is that Republican leader Trent Lott submits a question to the House managers from, say, Jesse Helms seeking clarification on the sequence of cellphone calls from Oval Office secretary Betty Currie. Then the Democrat leader, Tom Daschle, submits an all-purpose question to the White House side on behalf of Senator Insert Name Here: “Would you please comment on any of the legal and factual assertions made by the managers in response to the previous question?” Sometimes, Senator Insert Name Here isn’t even around to hear the White House answer the question he’s “asked”: As the Clinton team got stuck on a question from Vermont’s Pat Leahy, the senator got to his feet and strolled out the chamber to do something more important, like book tickets for Cats.

On the Republican side, they’re not happy. If they press on with witnesses, their poll numbers could easily collapse from the present 4% to 2%. On the other hand, if they fold and spare the American people any further “agony”, their poll numbers could easily rocket from 4% to, oh, easily 4.5%- plus they’ll de-legitimize the House managers, the impeachment articles, and Ken Starr; make the president even more insufferably cocky; and invite vicious retribution from their conservative base in the next primaries.

Friends of the president are now urging him not “to over-play his hand” – another vivid image in the context of Mr. Clinton – as he did in Africa when he heard the Paula Jones case was dismissed and got out the cigar and bongos. So the official line remains that he’s going through almost as much excruciating agony as those of us who have to listen to this. The President, Senator Bumpers explained, had been devastated by his betrayal of “the wife whom he adored and a child he worshipped and for whom he would happily have died to ameliorate her shame”.

I rather doubt that. But Mr Bumpers is speaking figuratively, not proposing a compromise solution.

~from The Daily Telegraph/The National Post, January 22nd-24th 1999.

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