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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

The Lone Starr Hearings

Ken Starr took his case to Congress and lost: he became the target, and few people paid attention

By James Carney/Washington

TIME magazine

If there was ever any doubt that Ken Starr's daylong appearance before the House Judiciary Committee would not be an edifying experience for the nation, Michael Moore's presence in the room erased it. Moore, who makes a living satirizing the pompous and the hypocritical in films and on television, arrived last Thursday at the Rayburn House office building on Capitol Hill, site of the solemn Watergate impeachment hearings of 24 years ago, wearing a bright green baseball cap and trailing a cameraman. He was there to collect footage for his new cable-TV show, appropriately titled The Awful Truth. But he was having trouble mocking the independent counsel and the impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton. Why? Because, explained a dejected-looking Moore as he slumped against a wall outside the committee hearing room, "it's difficult to parody something that's already self-parody."

It was difficult because every actor in the production played a preassigned role in a drama with a preordained ending. And because Starr--though he tried to portray himself as an earnest public servant guided only by his reverence for the law--couldn't help veering, sometimes coyly, into political finger wagging. In the middle of his sober presentation there was Starr embracing the three Democratic Senators--Pat Moynihan, Bob Kerrey and Joe Lieberman--who had dared go to the floor in August to say that Clinton's private behavior was a public offense.

It was also difficult for Americans to invest in the spectacle because committee members, Republicans and Democrats alike, checked all pretense of impartiality in the cloakroom, with Democrats aiming a fusillade of sneers at Republican chairman Henry Hyde within minutes of the opening gavel and with Hyde clapping approvingly as Starr left the room 12 hours later. What should have been an uplifting display of American democracy at work had become so tedious and so illegitimate to the Americans who bothered to tune in that even Starr suggested he might rather be elsewhere. If not for his commitment to duty, the witness said in a rare moment of self-revelation, he would have packed up and moved to Malibu, Calif. That's where he had a teaching job lined up, he said, "long before Monica Lewinsky ever walked into the nation's life."

A Day Mixed With Fire And Tedium

If the hearings were short on oratory, they did offer some fun: full-time populist Michael Moore came with a camera, Democrats and Republicans shared pizza backstage, and the tart Barney Frank got in a few licks

Starr's pining for the quiet life was part of his attempt to appear inoffensive, just a purveyor of evidence who is eager to retreat from Washington's partisan wars. And to the extent that he remained genial and G-rated throughout most of the day, mentioning the words sex and sexual only four times in his opening remarks and prefacing his comments deferentially with "you may disagree with me," or "I want to be fair," he succeeded. But presenting himself as the Mister Rogers of the Washington legal elite did not aid Starr in his bigger task--persuading anyone who wasn't already convinced that the case he had built against the President was strong enough to merit impeachment. Said Democratic committee member Charles Schumer, who won a Senate race against Clinton nemesis Al D'Amato three weeks ago: "If this case is only about sex and lying about sex, it will never be found impeachable by Congress."

In fact, sex was a subject Starr tried to avoid last week. Scrubbed of all the details that made his original referral to Congress so sensational, the prepared testimony Starr delivered in his first 2 1/4 hours before the committee was remarkable mostly for its tortoise pace and its familiarity. The only surprise came when the prosecutor dropped the fact that he had found no evidence of wrongdoing by the President in two of Starr's long-running, pre-Monica investigations: the 1993 firing of White House travel-office employees and the improper collection of FBI files in 1996 by White House officials. But he got no credit for that revelation from Democrats. Instead, they quickly attacked him for waiting until after the recent midterm election before disclosing Clinton's innocence.

Once Starr started taking questions, it was easy to forget that Bill Clinton, and not the independent counsel, was the one facing impeachment. Democrats intended it that way. They sped past the facts of the case against the President without so much as a backward glance, using their time instead to machine-gun Starr with questions--or often just accusations--about his own conduct as prosecutor. For the most part Starr was able to deflect the attacks without losing his poise, but he was rattled a few times. One such moment came when California's Zoe Lofgren asked Starr whether, two months before he said he had first heard about Monica Lewinsky, he had discussed the existence of a tape recording "on which a woman claimed to have had sexual contact with President Clinton." The implication was that Starr might have lied when he told Attorney General Janet Reno in January that he had just stumbled across the Linda Tripp tapes. Seemingly stunned by the specificity of the question, Starr said he could not "recall that" and repeatedly promised to "search my recollection" for an answer.

Starr's memory lapses and semantic evasions would have been less noticeable if they weren't so Clintonian. More than half a dozen times, he answered a question by saying he couldn't remember, an unexpected fuzziness from a prosecutor who was nothing if not precise about the details in his 445-page impeachment referral to Congress. Perhaps most damning, he was asked whether his investigators, after they swooped down on Lewinsky on Jan. 16 at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Arlington, Va., had pressed her to wear a wire in order to tape conversations with Betty Currie, Vernon Jordan and even the President. Not so, Starr insisted to David Kendall, the President's attorney, whereupon Kendall calmly produced an FBI report from that night that suggested otherwise.

Kendall's 65-min. interrogation of Starr was the climax of a marathon day, a clash of two millionaire lawyers from prestigious firms in Washington with a knack for conveying much with the turn of the mouth and the raising of an eyebrow. After an opening exchange of first-name pleasantries, Kendall studiously called his sparring partner "Mr. Starr" even as the answers came back addressed to "David." Kendall was crisp and deliberate as he hammered away, accusing Starr's office of unlawfully leaking information to the press and mistreating witnesses. When Kendall suggested that Starr's agents had "held" Lewinsky against her will, Starr's face darkened, and he snapped, "That is false, and you know it to be false!"

Starr's problem was not his outbursts, of which there were few, but a vanity he had trouble concealing. At intervals during the course of the day, he compared himself to both the Lone Ranger and George Washington, and he wrapped himself in Justice Louis Brandeis when he insisted that he too was a servant of "facts, facts, facts." Over and over he said that Congress had to rely on its own "judgment" in deciding whether to impeach--a fact so obvious that the more he said it the more it sounded as if he had trouble believing it.

Sam Dash, for one, made it clear last week that he doesn't think Starr really believes it. On Friday morning Dash, a Democrat who was the chief counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee 24 years ago, resigned as Starr's $400-an-hour ethics adviser, saying Starr's performance had convinced him that the independent counsel had "unlawfully intruded on the power of impeachment which the Constitution gives solely to the House." Because Dash, who was regarded within the independent counsel's office as pompous and temperamental, is a venerated Democrat, he was a valuable asset to Starr. During his testimony on Thursday, Starr cited Dash's "great wisdom," and after Dash quit, Starr told reporters that "reasonable minds can differ." He added, "I love Sam Dash."

Dash had dealt Starr a big blow. His resignation helped seal Washington's posthearing verdict that Starr's performance would not change the dynamic in Congress against impeachment. Committee Republicans did expand their inquiry last week into the Kathleen Willey affair--the accusation by the former White House volunteer that the President groped her near the Oval Office. So this week and next their investigators want to depose in closed-door sessions Willey's attorney Daniel Gecker, Clinton's attorney Bob Bennett, Clinton confidant Bruce Lindsey and Democratic contributor Nathan Landow. But even as Hyde was pressing on, more rank-and-file House Republicans were declaring publicly that they would not vote for impeachment. And outside emissaries began calling around Capitol Hill, once again floating the idea of a bipartisan resolution of censure as an alternative to impeachment.

In Japan, where the President was safely engaged in negotiations over international finance, the Lewinsky affair intruded in a surprising way. It came via an Osaka housewife, and it had nothing to do with impeachment. "How did you apologize to Mrs. Clinton and Chelsea?" she asked him at a town-hall forum. "Did they really forgive you, Mr. President?" Replied Clinton: "Well, I did it in a direct and straightforward manner, and I believe they did, yes. That's really a question you could ask them better than me." It was perhaps the only fact that Americans too still wanted to know.

--With reporting by Jay Branegan and Viveca Novak/Washington

MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: November 30, 1998

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