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The Hanging Judge of Babble-On

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  • Tom Shales
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, November 20, 1998; Page F1

    Ken Starr may have disappointed his enemies by coming across as primarily calm and collected in his appearance before the House Judiciary Committee yesterday, but say, how'd you like to get stuck next to this guy at a dinner party? Good Lord, what a bore.

    America got its first long look at Starr during his hours and hours of testimony, and it's very unlikely there will be a huge public outcry demanding another one.

    Perhaps beneath the dullness lies pure evil. Or perhaps just more dullness. He may have reminded some viewers of the most tedious teacher they'd ever had in high school – in shop class, maybe, or algebra. The teacher whose classes you were most desperate and likely to skip.

    All the major networks were on the air at 10 a.m. for coverage of the impeachment proceedings, and the hearings got off to a deceptively lively start. Democrats on the committee started one helluva pie fight (without pies, that is) on questions of parliamentary procedure and such. Almost immediately, Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) completely and amusingly lost control of the hearings as William Delahunt (Mass.), Sheila Jackson Lee (Tex.) and Barney Frank (Mass.) and other Democrats began grumping about the inherent unfairness of the proceedings.

    "We're disrupting a railroad," charged Melvin Watt of North Carolina. Hyde, funny when flustered, flailed and wailed. He finally got order and, half an hour late, delivered his opening statement. He lamented the fact that when it came to the alleged offenses of Bill Clinton, he'd heard that "people are weary of it all." He then presided over several hours that were likely only to make people much, much wearier.

    Starr, prim and trim in the requisite TV-blue shirt and TV-red tie, began reading his statement about 10:50 and was immediately interrupted by the bumbling Hyde: "Is your mike on?" Only an hour since the thing began, it was already looking like the Keystone Kongress at work. But once Starr got rolling, he did a respectable job of presentation. Not credible, maybe, but respectable.

    He was supposedly offering up the facts as gathered at great expense by his costly posse of investigators, but the speech really consisted of Starr attacking Clinton and defending himself. He's a coy, sly and even coquettish attacker, however, so what he delivered was unique in its way: a mealy-mouthed diatribe. He seemed alternately mousy and weaselly.

    In the course of his long monologue, he tried to make Linda Tripp sound like a courageous and public-spirited citizen; insisted that the president's affair with Monica Lewinsky was not the heart of the matter – but still managed to bring it up again and again; and tried to equate perjury, which he claimed Clinton had committed, with bribery, which Starr said is an impeachable offense.

    Or, as he ungrammatically put it at one point, "Perjury is a high crime and misdemeanor." Oh, both? Neat trick.

    Certainly the hearings were not embarrassingly lurid, as were the hearings on Clarence Thomas when he was nominated to the Supreme Court. Nor were they passionate and fiery like the Oliver North proceedings. Unlike Watergate, no great issues seemed at stake, and memorable oratory was definitely at a minimum. But it was history happening in real time, and it was nothing if not absorbing to watch.

    Washington's Channel 4 didn't find it absorbing enough. Incredibly, the station cut away from Starr's testimony while he was giving it and returned to regular local programming – in this case, the syndicated "Roseanne" show. That's right, the NBC-owned station in the nation's capital preempted network coverage by Tom Brokaw and colleagues in favor of cheap canned gab. Somewhere there's a screw loose at Channel 4, and that screw appears to be running the station.

    One can reasonably assume an angry call or two from network management in New York resulted in Channel 4's rejoining network coverage later.

    "There was nothing in here that we did not already know," Brokaw told most NBC viewers (and those watching simulcast coverage on cable's MSNBC) after Starr completed his two-hour babble-on, and Tim Russert confidently declared, "Impeachment proceedings will not be successful against President Clinton." But the show must go on, as the old saying goes, and so it did. On and on and on into the dinner hour and beyond.

    Soon it became a game of seeing whether any of the Democrats could flap the seemingly unflappable Starr (a few came close) and how far the Republicans would go in praising Starr as a giant of jurisprudence who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Or women. The praise heaped on Starr – and the claims that he has been unjustly vilified for his humanitarian work – became ludicrous in their lavishness.

    Since unrealistic rules limited the questioning to five minutes, the Democrats tended to fill up their allotments with speeches and allegations and then expect Starr to respond. But the time would be up. So Hyde would have to make a ruling. And there would be bickering and bantering. Hyde seemed to spend a couple of eternities telling people to be brief. The doctor should have taken some of his own medicine.

    Everyone, meanwhile, appears to have bought into the myth that Hyde is the noblest and fairest creature ever to grace the unworthy marble halls of the Capitol. He certainly didn't seem fair on TV yesterday. He would snap angrily at Democrats when they refused to take Starr's evasive obfuscations for answers. He introduced Starr with a glowing and fawning biography. He even cut Starr off when it looked as if Starr was going to go too far in denigrating Monica Lewinsky and thus saved the independent counsel from looking bad.

    "Ms. Lewinsky made it quite clear that she knew how to lie," Starr had said in response to a question from Watt. The North Carolina Democrat was making a good point: It appeared that whenever Starr didn't like something Lewinsky had said, he assumed she had lied. Watt: "How are you picking and choosing what you believe from Ms. Lewinsky?" Before Starr could stammer an answer, Hyde announced that Watt's time was up.

    Bob Inglis, a Republican from South Carolina, took dubious honors for the most slavish and slobbering gush about Starr, thanking him profusely for the tremendous service he had done for his country. This really was the day's height of gall. But the funniest performance by a dunce was certainly that given by Steve Buyer, an Indiana Republican who combined fractured syntax with zany histrionics for a tour de force of sheer imbecility.

    Buyer appeared not to understand the difference between a "civil" case and a "civil rights" case and praised Starr by telling him, in part, "You've maintained your intellect here today." Perhaps Buyer had checked his intellect at the door. If the printed record of the hearings is scrupulously accurate, then Buyer's testimony ought to make for howlfully enjoyable reading, a comedy monologue that didn't mean to be one.

    The most distinctive fashion note of the day was sounded by Sheila Jackson Lee. Her hairdo looked at first like a regal crown, but the more one watched it, the more it became apparent what the stylish do was an homage to: Of course! The Capitol dome.

    Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, made probably the most eloquent statement in the president's defense to be heard all day. It must have been good because Hyde scowled and snapped at her.

    The sun had set, and still they went on, sniping and griping and most of all, repeating and repeating and repeating. Hyde worries that Americans are "weary of it all"? If they watched his hearings, they're worse than weary. They're utterly exhausted.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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