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Two Men. Two Trials. One Conclusion

Clinton on Trial

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  • By William Booth
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, January 16, 1999; Page C01

    LOS ANGELES Was it Greta Van Susteren talking DNA? Or when the camera trucks arrived in Brentwood? Or that moment when Geraldo uttered again, without irony, the words "trial of the century"?

    Ohmigod. It's happening again.

    The Clinton impeachment is the O.J. Simpson trial of politics.

    But no, the level heads might say, this could not be so. The Clinton matter is, after all, "a constitutional crisis," a portentous, momentous historical mega-event, the unseating of a president, or as Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) put it: "the trial of all time."

    And the Simpson matter -- that was celebrity fluff, the marzipan of tabloids.

    Oh really?

    Consider the evidence for massive parallelism:

    The defendants?

    Two men rising from adversity, ghetto black from Potrero Hill and poor white from Hot Springs, the sons of single moms who by force of will and talent rise to the tops of their professions, yet who are seen even by their admirers, ultimately, as somehow fatally flawed, as unable to confront the truth directly, men whose lives unravel with all the certainty of a Greek tragedy.

    Beloved and supported by some as victims of a "system" gone mad, seen as pathological liars by others. Two men alleged to be in massive denial. But nevertheless, charismatic Sun Kings.

    And the two defendants, are they not the vessels of our complicated and contradictory feelings about politics, race, celebrity and justice?

    In both cases, almost every sentient being on the planet made up its mind about guilt or innocence way before any trial began. Yet highly reasonable people were capable of coming to opposite conclusions, based on the exact same evidence.

    Like the Simpson matter, the polls and talk radio shows and the person-on-the-street interviews keep finding a public that claims it is "sick of the whole thing." Move on! But the citizens keep watching the current spectacle as they did the last.

    Because truth be told: Both cases are so rich with insight into America that it is . . . embarrassing.

    Like any long-running nationally televised soap opera, the actors may come and go, but the roles are eternal, and so is the necessity of a good script, a narrative arch -- with first, second and third acts, with action beats and comic relief, the set pieces and scenes, the denouement, the anticlimax.

    Anticlimax known: Simpson acquitted of criminal charges; found liable in civil proceedings for the deaths of Ron and Nicole; punished with a $33.5 million judgment, money he does not have. Rockingham manse bulldozed. O.J. goes golfing.

    Anticlimax to come: Clinton impeached by the House of Representatives; spared removal from office by the Senate; perhaps censured and fined (for money he does not have, but Hollywood supporters do); moves to California and spends the rest of his days tending the embers of his legacy, and . . . golfing.

    Defining visuals -- the endless loop of videotape? In Simpson, it was the slow-speed car chase. In Clinton, it is the presidential hug with the beaming intern in the black beret on the White House lawn. Runner-up: the finger-wagging "that woman" clip.

    The stoic tough-as-nails mother-wife who stands by her son/man? Hands-down: Eunice Simpson appeared in her wheelchair; first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton shows up in Vogue.

    Oddball gadflies who constantly appear on television, uttering obscure (sometimes Yiddish) aphorisms, but in fact serve as voices of moral outrage: Fred Goldman and William Ginsburg.

    Chief Justice William Rehnquist might not realize it yet, but he'd better get a firm grip on that gavel or go the way of Judge Lance Ito. As Ito lost control of his courtroom to grandstanding lawyers, Rehnquist must preside over a trial in which the jurors -- 100 senators -- are running the show. The profession of most of the millionaires who make up the U.S. Senate? Law.

    The media: Where does one start? It's parallelism city! In the dueling trials, Vanity Fair morphs into The Washington Post as must-read journal of record. Catty dirt disher Dominique Dunne passes baton to Newsweek's Michael Isikoff, known by puppet-mistress Lucianne Goldberg as "Spikey." The National Enquirer continues to break major stories.

    The physical evidence, complete with brand-name identification -- evidence sensational, damning and miraculous in its mysterious discovery? The bloody glove and the messy dress. By Isotoner and Gap, respectively.

    Food fetish: Mezzaluna and Domino's. Clinton cover story involves delivery by "Pizza Girl" Lewinsky. Ron Goldman, waiter at Mezzaluna and friend of Nicole Brown Simpson, is murdered when he arrives at the Bundy Drive condo to deliver eyeglasses left at restaurant. Mezzaluna also served pizza.

    Timeout for fashion? The obsessive interest in the length of Marcia Clark's hemline. The obsessive interest in the girth of Monica Lewinsky's thighs.

    Who is Al Cowlings but Vernon Jordan? Cowlings, one recalls, was the close friend and confidant of Simpson who drove his pal on his wild slow-car chase, talked the former football great out of killing himself and, according to prosecutors, might have taken care of that golf bag upon Simpson's return from Chicago, a bag that might have contained some very damaging evidence. Longtime Clinton pal Jordan steps into the role as Mister Fix-It.

    A trial of the century must have a lurid scene of the crime, a place out of bounds to the hoi polloi, a tableau never seen but vividly imagined: Can one do better than the compound at 360 Rockingham and the Oval Office bath at 1600 Pennsylvania?

    Largely irrelevant but attractive women who attempt to cash in from the sidelines, plugging their product (themselves) on appearances with Ed Bradley on "60 Minutes" and Diane Sawyer on "Prime Time Live"? Paula Barbieri ($3 million advance for tell-all), meet Kathleen Willey, who attempted to broker a book deal for two months with Michael Viner, publisher of private diary of Lyle Menendez and tell-all by . . . Faye Resnick (!).

    Remember Kato Kaelin, the loyal houseboy and friend of Simpson who actually knows more than he ever seems to remember, who with the greatest reluctance must relate hearing those mysterious bumps and bangs in the passageway where the bloody glove is later found, but whose ultimate testimony was reduced to a hazy puree?

    This must be loyal secretary Betty Currie, who also may or may not have heard mysterious bumps and bangs within the Oval Office, but whose own testimony begins to sound vague.

    Best case for the V-chip: Real trials of the century must be rated "adults only." Parents struggle to shield their children from incredibly graphic details of slayings. Parents struggle to shield their children from incredibly graphic details of the Starr report.

    Religious advisers: The Rev. Rosey Grier visits Simpson for jailhouse kneel time. The Rev. Jesse Jackson prays with Clinton family. Details of both visits released to the media.

    Daughters in pain: Arnelle Simpson stands by her pop, crashes her car, intoxicated, takes some community service. Chelsea Clinton stands by her pop, attends Stanford, hospitalized overnight for flu.

    Media-driven overestimations that melt down during the actual proceedings: Marcia Clark is a brilliant prosecutor (before trial). Marcia Clark is the most inept prosecutor in America (after acquittal). Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) lauded as the "judicious Henry Hyde" committed to "bipartisan" impeachment resolution. Henry Hyde achieves zero support from Democrats and applauds, to a standing ovation by his GOP committee members, the culmination of Ken Starr's House testimony.

    Collateral road kill: Simpson bodies Dennis Fung, Chris Darden, Rosa Lopez and Ron Shipp. Clinton bodies Julie Hiatt Steele, Andrew Bleiler, Bob Barr, Bob Livingston.

    And who is the Mark Fuhrman of the Clinton matter, the investigator who becomes the central target for the defense, whose evidence is as damning as the bloody glove but who is relentlessly attacked as an overzealous rogue cop? Who indeed, but independent counsel Kenneth Starr, whose motives and methods were the focus of the president's defense attorneys but whose evidence was barely mentioned.

    Special correspondent Cassandra Stern contributed to this report.

    © Copyright The Washington Post Company

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