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A Story Stranger Than Fiction

Clinton on Trial

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  • By Tom Kenworthy
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, January 27, 1999; Page A10

    BOULDER, Colo. – Mimi Wesson's day job is teaching criminal law at the University of Colorado Law School. But her other passion is writing novels. This year, on leave from the university, she is working on her third legal thriller, and watching, with considerable interest, the impeachment drama in faraway Washington, D.C.

    While polls say most Americans are fed up, screaming for the whole unpleasant mess to end, Wesson is an enthralled observer. From her perspective as a lawyer, teacher and former prosecutor, she finds the impeachment process with its parallels to a criminal trial a fascinating expression of "the legal process orientation of our culture." And as a novelist (Marianne Wesson) with an appreciation for a good story line, Wesson said, she finds the struggle gripping stuff.

    "You couldn't imagine it," she said, "and even if you could, you couldn't write it because it is so over the top."

    Wesson, 50, is a child of the '60s. Raised in Dallas, she went off to school at Vassar and stitched a peace symbol onto her mortarboard at commencement. She got her law degree at the University of Texas and came to Boulder to teach evidence, trial practice and family law. After four years, she took a leave to get some practical experience as an assistant U.S. attorney in Denver, then returned to the classroom.

    Wesson is comfortable in this university city whose politics and culture are so out of whack with most of Colorado that it is often derided as the "People's Republic of Boulder." She is a liberal Democrat and a feminist and voted twice for Bill Clinton, the first time watching his election "with something like joy."

    Now, she is "incredibly disappointed" in him, and a bit disappointed in herself as well. "His shortcomings that are so visibly on display here really could have been observed, and should have been observed, by me much earlier," she said.

    Because of her training as a lawyer, Wesson has been slow to form her opinions in this case, not wanting to reach conclusions without hearing the witnesses and watching their demeanor. But by now, she said, "I'm practically convinced he committed perjury, and I think there is a very good chance he committed obstruction of justice."

    To a former federal prosecutor, those are grave offenses, though not, in her mind, sufficient to force Clinton's removal from office given the underlying circumstances. Impeachment by the House, but no conviction in the Senate, "feels about right," she said.

    "I probably have a more powerful sense than most people of the damage that perjury does to justice," said Wesson.

    She thinks back often to the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and her outrage, not so much at what she saw as "uncouth and offensive" behavior toward Anita Hill, but at her conclusion that he lied after "he raised his hand and took that oath to tell the truth."

    So now, she explained, it "baffles me the way so many of my friends, people with whom I share so many values, defend [Clinton] so ardently. I'm no particular fan of [independent counsel] Kenneth Starr and certainly find some of Clinton's enemies scary people, but I'm just not moved to defend him at all."

    But beyond her conclusions about Clinton, which she reveals only with some prodding, Wesson is fascinated with the impeachment ritual and what it says about American culture and tradition.

    "I hate to say an event that has a lot of pain and unhappiness for so many people is great, but from the perspective of a spectator who's always looking for concrete events to put some flesh on the abstractions that you think about, it's been wonderful," she said.

    "It seems to me sometimes that the legal process is what we have instead of a monarch or a common religion or a closely knit culture. Americans, no matter where they worship or what kind of food they eat, or what kind of music they listen to, they can all talk to you about the right to confront witnesses. The impeachment, in its features, expresses our culture and the legal process orientation of our culture in such an interesting way."

    So she is glued to the television when she should be pounding away on her novel, right? Not exactly. She tunes to C-SPAN occasionally, but "it's just staggering in its tedium."

    That reminds her of an essay by Rebecca West on the Nuremberg war crimes trials and their "stunning boredom." West, Wesson says, concluded that for all their profound importance, the trials were about the past and the world was eager to get on with the future.

    "Everyone understood it was very, very important for that to go forward, in a symbolic way, on the level of morality, and on the level of establishing some basic principles, but at the same time there wasn't a great deal of suspense," said Wesson. "I think this might be a little bit like that. There's not much suspense. Everyone can see what the outcome will be. And yet some of us still think it's important for other reasons to go through these motions."

    Going forward with the impeachment process, she added, is an affirmation of America's grounding in the rule of law and the orderly processes laid out in the Constitution.

    "It's just what we do in this country," said Wesson. "Instead of having coronations, instead of having coups d'etat, instead of having other kinds of rituals, this is what we do when these tremendous conflicts arise. And although it's painful and tedious and costly, it seems to me a better way than doing it with armies."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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