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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Public eye: Our nattering nabobs

Hearings have ceased to be useful. They are now an extension of television

By Margaret Carlson

TIME magazine

If the age of scandal is peaking with the possible impeachment of the President, it also shows signs of sputtering out. Scandals are now likely to claim the accuser as well as accused. Henry Hyde will be written about not for his three decades of public service but for failing to rise to his moment in history. Remember the invincible Senator Alfonse D'Amato who kept predicting the discovery of a smoking gun in his Whitewater inquiry? New Yorkers did, and he's outta here. Serial investigator Representative Dan Burton was re-elected, but not before he was nailed for an extramarital affair during which he fathered a child.

Televise a hearing today, and it ceases to be one. It becomes a chance to pillory your opponents, play-act morality and audition for your 15 minutes of cable fame. People not only choose sides, they also choose roles. Representative Bob Inglis, raw from his November loss to Senator Fritz Hollings, returned as the voice of the Lord, the Old Testament one. Representative Lindsey Graham's early turn as Hamlet turned out to be a search for an unoccupied spot on the opinion spectrum that might land him on Meet the Press. He found a "legal technicality" that allowed him to vote against one article, earning him the valuable CONSERVATIVE BUCKS HIS PARTY headline in the New York Times.

Members don't want to cede air time to witnesses, so they toss hand grenades disguised as questions. Representative Bill McCollum kept positing inaccurate details about one witness' life, using her as a prop to make his point, until she finally asked to be allowed to answer. But who has time for answers when members are determined to be home and rested for Christmas?

Mary Bono, the committee's newest member, has chosen the role of designated Everymom to show how decent folk live. The nonlawyer, as she repeatedly describes herself, cuts through the Capitol's moral sophistry in her attempt to convince Americans why they should be in favor of impeachment. Heck, she even managed to work Furby dolls into her questioning. But interviews outside the committee show she has been miscast. In TV Guide she gratuitously criticized her late husband, saying how insecure and difficult he actually was and that she's happily dating a country-music star who has "centered me in a way nobody has before." She said she believes Sonny was under the influence of painkillers when he skied into the tree, even though the autopsy doesn't list that as the cause of death. She also left her fatherless children to run for Congress just weeks after Sonny died, which makes her something less than the ideal person to be the official G.O.P. hand wringer over what to tell the children.

There were pure meta-television moments. Early on, Clinton spear carrier, Representative Robert Wexler, said he had a rebuttal to impeachment gonzo Representative Bob Barr--but was saving it for an appearance that evening on Crossfire. Blurting it out at the hearing, he said, "wouldn't be fair to the program." The Minority Counsel prepared an America's Funniest Home Videos clip consisting of Ken Starr saying over and over that he couldn't recall, remember or recollect.

Where, oh where, is Howard Baker? Where is common sense? Where's the off button? One day they're expanding the hearings, the next they're not. Let's take up Kathleen Willey! Let's take up campaign finance! Let's deck the halls with boughs of holly! These seem not like solemn constitutional proceedings but more like the Super Bowl of gotcha. Much of America will be shocked if all this results in the impeachment of the President.

The tone of the proceedings plays into the strategy of Majority Whip (and Speaker for Now) Tom DeLay. His aim is to define impeachment down, depicting it as nothing more than censure. What's the big deal, he said, if the more responsible Senate would never do anything so ridiculous as convict? The House is home alone! This doesn't really get rid of the guy, so let's impeach!

The only thing worse than DeLay succeeding is Clinton escaping the noose once again. Despite reiterating in the Rose Garden that he's really, really sorry, the hole in his soul where a conscience should be would lead him to interpret a failure to impeach as proof that he was unfairly persecuted. Remember the famous litany of the 1992 campaign where he was being unjustly penalized for "a woman he didn't sleep with and a draft he didn't dodge." And don't forget about the drug he didn't inhale. Next week he could be complaining about "a lie he didn't tell about that woman, Miss Lewinsky, whom he didn't have sex with," and, O.J.-like, vowing to spend the rest of his life searching for the real soiler of the blue dress. Look how he acted right after Democrats did better than expected in the November elections. Instead of seeing that reprieve as the remarkable kindness of strangers, he saw vindication. He was unyielding in his answers to Congress' 81 questions, and he missed his last opportunity on Friday to act like more than a criminal defendant protecting himself from the remote possibility of indictment. Even his allies were fed up with him.

So much in Washington now seems less than it was--the Lincoln bedroom, the independent counsel, the truth. And now, impeachment. Don't you have to believe that the President should be removed from office to vote for it? Hyde insisted Friday that was "exactly not true." But there's no asterisk beside your vote explaining that you just wanted to scare the guy to death, and you are sure that wise men in the Senate will put on the brakes. Impeachment is coming to look like just another weapon in the scandal wars. They're not really removing a President; they're just pretending to--on TV.


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: December 21, 1998

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