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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

With Respect, You Moron...

By Jeff Greenfield

TIME magazine

As I watched Kenneth Starr last Thursday, I was struck by the same thought that pops up every time Congress holds one of these contentious hearings: "How do these guys do it?" How do they sit there, hour after hour, and listen to the congressional gasbags without blowing their tops? Here is Mr. Starr, placidly gazing at a legislator who has just spent five minutes comparing him to Soviet thug Lavrenti Beria, and then responding, "Congressman, with all due respect..."

Starr is hardly alone. With rare exceptions, witnesses simply do not permit themselves to go on the offensive when a series of blue-suited, blow-dried politicians bathe themselves in the warm glow of television lights and let forth with a "question" that is a variation on this theme: "Mr. Jones, wouldn't you agree that your despicable conduct, which has outraged decent Americans everywhere, has stained our Constitution, dishonored the brave men who fell at Valley Forge, dismayed our allies, comforted our enemies and caused our great agricultural produce to wither on the vine?" This restraint is curious. First, it is contrary to human nature--or, at least, my human nature. Second, those few witnesses who stand up to congressional bullying more often than not emerge as victors. During the Watergate hearings of 1973, Pat Buchanan put the Democrats back on their heels by describing their hardball political tactics. Lieut. Colonel Oliver North emerged a hero of the right during the Iran-contra investigation. And when Harold Ickes faced down Senator Al D'Amato during his Whitewater probe, you almost expected one of these two tough New Yorkers to snarl, "Hey, you want a piece of me? Let's take this outside!" These warrior witnesses convince me that there is no good strategic reason for anyone to sit and listen to his character being trashed by committee members with their share of flaws. During one such hearing, the accusers included a plagiarist, an influence peddler, an apologist for organized crime and a criminally negligent motorist. It reminded me of the story of the woman who visits a butcher shop, picks up a chicken and starts prodding and sniffing the bird. The butcher asks, "Lady--you could pass such a test?"

Yet the witness remained polite throughout, never once leaping over the table, grabbing an inquisitor by his ears and screaming, "Hey, flannel mouth--does the phrase 'posturing hypocrite windbag' ring a bell?" Indeed, I sometimes fantasize about being subpoenaed to such a hearing, just for the chance to hit back. I've got my answers ready: "Excuse me, sir; did you develop your devotion to morality before or after you left your second wife for that podiatrist's assistant?" "Senator, when you ask about a cover-up, are you referring to that pathetically unconvincing toupee?" "I'll make you an offer, Congressman. You put away those notes, and I'll answer questions your staff didn't write for you." I know I'll be risking a contempt-of-Congress citation. But remember what the lawyer said when a pompous judge asked him, "Counselor, are you trying to show contempt for this court?" "No, your honor," the lawyer replied. "I'm trying to conceal it."


Cover Date: November 30, 1998

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