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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Now, Repeat After Me

Washington is trapped in Groundhog Day without a Hollywood ending

By Margaret Carlson

TIME magazine

A second cup of coffee, a big muffin, a soft chair, and I'm ready for a full, unexpurgated dose of Ken Starr. Our earlier TV encounters had been so cryptic, so unsatisfying: Starr on his driveway comparing himself to Joe Friday and bidding reporters vaya con Dios. But now, into the hallowed chamber where the articles of Nixon's impeachment were debated, comes Clinton's nemesis--in the flesh and under oath.

But rather than All the President's Men, I'm watching a pallid remake of Groundhog Day, the umpteenth reliving of Bill Clinton's worst 24 hours. And unlike Bill Murray, a small-market newscaster who finally gets it right, no one in this drama is changing for the better. Starr prissily boasts that he is not poll driven or part of the "talk-show circuit," despite having spent endless hours videotaping his rehearsals and, that same day, appearing on Good Morning America. Before the committee, Starr methodically recites his resume, as if who he is would serve as an explanation for what he has done. He is the most pedantic of teachers, one who wouldn't descend to your level to punish you in class for clowning but would see to it that the principal called your parents and revoked your lunchtime privileges.

There is little of prurient interest. Starr has scrubbed out the sex, offering a PG-rated, made-for-TV version. There are no fireworks, little crankiness and none of the verbal slips you might expect after 12 hours of testimony. Hardened attorneys don't crack. Starr is eerily Clintonian at times. He hides behind his "professional staff," and when confronted with the charge that he'd intimidated a witness by questioning the legitimacy of her long-ago adoption of a Romanian orphan, he shifts responsibility to them, saying, "I don't go with my FBI agents on every single interview." He dodges when asked whether he wanted to wire Monica to get the goods on Clinton, even when reminded of it by an FBI report and Lewinsky's sworn testimony.

Perhaps the most chilling moment comes when Starr defends his staff for telling Lewinsky she risked 27 years' imprisonment if she called her lawyer. He explains that she was "a felon in the middle of committing another felony." Is she an Uzi-wielding drug dealer? Detective Sipowicz couldn't have put it better.

This is Watergate manque. Starr is not Archibald Cox. Henry Hyde has Sam Ervin's white hair but not his folksy touch. There are no bipartisan Wise Men like Howard Baker, nowhere the drama of a fresh question revealing a secret White House taping system. Back then a hearing was a hearing, not a televised re-enactment of previous document dumps. And back then Sam Dash was Sam Dash. This time around he's been Starr's ethics enabler, overlooking obvious conflicts until his client went so far as to testify, against his advice, as an "aggressive advocate" for impeachment.

Starr's wasn't the worst performance of the week. That award goes to his co-star, the modern Mata Hari, Linda Tripp. Hear Tripp in what may be the first felony violation of the Girl Talk Rule: the one that requires each of us to be a dead-letter box for the crazy-in-love musings of our real friends. To lull Monica into admissions that could be used against her, Tripp baits the trap with some confidences of her own, using the universally understood female language of bad hair, bad thighs and bad men. Tripp despairs about her bangs, which Monica's hairdresser can do nothing to help. The two wail about their porkiness even as they are heard munching goodies on the phone. Yo-yo dieting complicates their other pastime--clothes shopping. Tiffany is grand, but the greatest find is a Georgetown shop specializing in designer suits consigned by local TV anchors. Common ground established, Monica divulges incriminating details of encounters with the "Big He." Infatuation and true love being equally delusional in early stages, Monica sometimes comes across as endearing. Tripp laughs in something approaching sympathy when Monica moans, "If I ever want to have an affair with a married man again, especially if he's President, please shoot me."

Me too. By the time Henry Hyde got around to David Kendall, most of the country had switched to ER. In this Groundhog Day the clock radio will keep going off at 6 a.m., playing I Got You Babe forever and ever. We flip off the television and wish for a different ending. In it Starr admits it is wrong to ridicule Monica for wanting her "Mommy" and to grill her without her attorney. In it Clinton's attorneys concede that "is" means "is" and "sex" means "sex" and that indeed Clinton was trying to cover it up all along. In it Democrats say, "Clinton, you lie too easily, and you fight dirty," and Republicans say, "Starr, you shouldn't treat innocent bystanders like Mafia dons." And while we're at it, the press says, "We went way overboard in our coverage to the exclusion of other worthy news." But, alas, that's another story. No one in this drama ever owns up or grows up.


Cover Date: November 30, 1998

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