Clinton's crisis: Next up, the touchy subjects
By James Carney
(Time, October 19) -- It's early December 1998. In the stuffy, overcrowded chamber of the House Judiciary Committee, his forehead shiny under the television lights, Congressman X prepares to question the witness, a young woman with dark hair, full lips, surprising poise and a team of exceptionally well-dressed lawyers. "Miss Lewinsky," the lawmaker begins solemnly, "I know this must be very difficult for you, but we have before us a very serious matter." The witness offers a weak smile, triggering a blizzard of clicks from the motor-driven shutters of 30 cameras. The Congressman awkwardly clears his throat and plunges forward. "Miss Lewinsky, on the first occasion that the President of the United States fondled and kissed your breasts, is it your recollection that his intention was to gratify you sexually?"
Is the American public ready for this? The answer is, it doesn't matter. Now that Congress has launched an impeachment inquiry, the prospect of Monica Lewinsky's testifying in face-flushing detail before the 37-member committee is all but inevitable. Having lost last week's battle over the launch of the impeachment process, many Democrats relish the chance to embarrass the G.O.P. by forcing the committee to interrogate Lewinsky and a host of other marquee players in televised hearings. "Nobody wants to do that," said Henry Hyde, the Republican chairman of the committee, when asked about having Lewinsky testify. "Even the Democrats will think twice about calling witnesses that they at first might want to call." But while Hyde and his colleagues have the power to prevent Democrats from calling any particular witness, they will be hard pressed to exercise it without adding to their image of partisanship. "It's absurd on its face that you wouldn't call the major witnesses," barked Marty Meehan, a Democratic committee member. "There has to be a fair opportunity to cross-examine these people."
Even before votes were cast last Thursday, Democrats and Republicans were arguing over the next stage in the process: Would depositions begin right away? And who would testify?
Democrats and the White House want to haul Kenneth Starr in for some grilling about his ties to conservative organizations and to lawyers who worked for Paula Jones--what committee member Barney Frank calls "the whole three-cornered relationship." Republicans, for their part, want Bruce Lindsey, the elusive keeper of the President's secrets, to appear. But there's no consensus on whether Clinton the witness would benefit one side or the other. And that issue is probably moot since the chance is slim he'll raise his hand and swear an oath before a committee of mostly junior Congressmen peering down at him from their platform armchairs. Clinton would not be likely to have a transcendent, Ollie North moment; he's not an unknown lieutenant colonel with a cause to defend.
Whether the President is impeached may depend on the tone of the hearings rather than the body of evidence. The Democrats want them to be about sex and Starr. The Republicans want them to be about abusing the law and the power of the presidency, which is why chief G.O.P. counsel David Schippers last week recalibrated Starr's rap sheet against Clinton so that the focus is on charges like obstruction of justice, witness tampering and, grandest of all, conspiracy. Between now and Nov. 3, with lawmakers out campaigning, the committee's staff members will function as quietly as possible as they prepare for postelection hearings. Witness lists will be drawn up, depositions taken and decisions made about whether to pursue calls from people volunteering information about Clinton. Next week White House lawyers will meet with committee counterparts to discuss what a Clinton aide called "mechanics." By that he means issues like settling which facts in the Starr report, if any, the White House is willing to stipulate as true in the interest of efficiency. But don't expect much progress. Sniffed a senior adviser to the President: "We're a lot more interested in cross-examination than stipulation."
--With reporting by Karen Tumulty/Washington
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Cover Date: October 19, 1998