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For Counsels, Two-Act Play Has Two Exits

Abbe Lowell Abbe Lowell, the minority investigative counsel, shows the Judiciary Committee a clip from a TV interview with Kenneth Starr. (AFP Photo)

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  • By Guy Gugliotta
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, December 11, 1998; Page A25

    It was a two-act play featuring sex, lies, videotape and audiotape, and it offered a rationale for anyone – Republican, Democrat, apologist or conspiracy theorist – who still needed a way to think about President Clinton, Monica S. Lewinsky and impeachment.

    Democratic counsel Abbe D. Lowell went first. He was the theatrical Washingtonian, a world-wise cleaner-upper of dirty laundry, sent in to debunk the preposterous charges and repeatedly warn the House Judiciary Committee that a vote to impeach could "doom the country" to "ordeal and paralysis of government" for months to come. Was America ready for that?

    Republican counsel David P. Schippers went last. He was the outraged outsider, father of 10 from Chicago, methodically walking the committee through reams of evidence to prove that it was perjury, it was obstruction of justice, it was abuse of power, it was "an attack upon and utter disregard for the truth, and for the rule of law," don't you see?

    With the minds of the committee members virtually made up, the two lawyers were speaking to the 20 or 30 uncommitted House members waiting to vote on impeachment next week and to the millions of Americans arrayed behind them.

    But though the argument yesterday was about impeachment and about Clinton's sordid affair with a former White House intern, in their own way Schippers and Lowell rehashed the underlying dispute that has festered in the American consciousness ever since Clinton arrived in Washington:

    Is he an inspirational but flawed leader who has ably steered the nation through six years of unparalleled prosperity? Or is he the opportunist who managed to parlay his Arkansas vaudeville act into a six-year gig at the White House?

    Lowell spoke for two hours, and his testimony was riveting. He walked the committee through the charges one by one, explaining them away as he drew the picture of a president anxious to conceal an illicit relationship from his family at the same time the lawyers in what he believed was a politically motivated lawsuit were trying to entrap him.

    Lowell played previously unreleased videotape of Clinton, during his Jan. 17 Paula Jones suit deposition, staring impassively at the camera while lawyers argued about the definition of "sexual relations." "This term would really be confusing," says one voice. "This means all things to all people," says another. "It's very unfair," someone replies. "I think it's a political trick."

    It went on and on. Clinton sipped coffee while his lawyer remarked that this "is almost like an automobile accident where the plaintiff's counsel wants to ask the defendant, 'Are you negligent?'" No, an opposing lawyer insisted, "we want to be as discreet as possible," so as not to have to utter dirty words.

    In the end, U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright remarked: "If you want to know the truth, I'm not sure Mr. Clinton knows all these definitions." This "havoc and confusion," Lowell concluded, lies at the core of the perjury allegations against the president: "Does anyone in this room, does anyone in the United States, understand this definition?"

    Or what about obstruction of justice? Lowell made the committee squirm by playing tapes of telephone conversations of Lewinsky talking with erstwhile friend Linda R. Tripp: "We didn't have sex, we fooled around," Lewinsky said, and "I was brought up with lies all the time."

    He played a tape montage of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr telling the committee repeatedly, "I don't recall," "I'm not recalling," "I don't know." And yet in Clinton's case, Lowell said, the committee "wants to make presidential lapses of memory impeachable offenses."

    Schippers wasn't as compelling, but his views are those of people who have never trusted Clinton – the audience to whom he was speaking – and have been willing to wade through the smoke for years, trying to get at the truth.

    Schippers would provide it: "The evidence and testimony must be viewed as a whole," he said. "It cannot be compartmentalized. Don't be "cajoled into considering each event in isolation," he warned. "This is the tactic of defense lawyers in every conspiracy trial that I have ever seen."

    Yes, he continued, this is a conspiracy. When Lewinsky told the grand jury "'nobody told me to lie,'" he said, nobody had to: "Monica knew what was expected of her." And while she may have said "'nobody ever promised me a job,'" Schippers said, after she filed a false affidavit, "she got one, didn't she?"

    Schippers narrated the whole Clinton-Lewinsky saga in his flat Chicago accent, interspersing the story with his own video clips, most of them featuring Clinton dancing around the truth or telling what appear to be outright falsehoods in his Jones deposition.

    At the end, neither Lowell nor Schippers had trouble telling the committee where it had gone wrong or where it ought to go, and both men were worried about "the bar."

    The committee was fatally "lowering the bar" to impeachment, Lowell said in a tone of controlled outrage. It was too willing "to dilute the constitutional standard" or "lower the burden of proof" or "reverse the presumption of innocence."

    No, said Schippers five hours later. "If you don't impeach as a consequence of the conduct that I have just portrayed, then no House of Representatives will ever be able to impeach again." His voice shook with finger-wagging intensity. "The bar will be so high, that only a convicted felon or a traitor will need to be concerned."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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