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Tom Shales: A Heckle-and-Hyde Performance

Impeachment Hearings

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  • By Tom Shales
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, December 9, 1998; Page D1

    Do you send a group of scholars to argue with a lynch mob? The White House appeared to be trying that strategy yesterday, the first of two days billed as "the president's defense" before the House Judiciary Committee, whose Republican majority is all but certain to vote to impeach him later this week.

    It may have been history in the making, but on television it played like history in the remaking, mere repetition of arguments that have been advanced over and over on both sides in the punishingly protracted case. "What we're doing is, we're going through motions, but it seems minds are made up," said Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), soon to become a senator, in one of the day's pithier summations.

    "As representatives of the people," witness Sean Wilentz, a Princeton history professor, told the members of the committee, "you should be well aware that the public has shown again and again and again that it has no stomach to watch this nauseating spectacle continue."

    But continue it did.

    Yesterday's hearings hardly got the attention of the last such bash thrown by Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.). The three major networks all but ignored them during the day. Some PBS stations, including Washington's Channel 26, aired the daytime session, as did cable's CNN, MSNBC and, of course, that network-of-record and gallantly public-spirited citizen, C-SPAN.

    "This is important work that we're doing here today," declared Ed Bryant (R-Tenn.) in the fifth hour of the session. But the networks apparently begged to differ, and those viewers who were watching saw mostly partisan wrangling and spatting that hardly lived up to Bryant's grandiose pronouncement.

    Should the White House be miffed that its defense got less coverage than the attack? Not really, because most Republicans on the committee, instead of really questioning the witnesses assembled by the president's legal team, made their same old speeches denouncing perjury and hanky-panky and twirling themselves into dizzying tizzies of high dudgeon and apoplexy.

    Even Clinton defenders took whacks at him. The day's second panel of witnesses was made up of three people who'd served on the Judiciary Committee during the Watergate impeachment hearings in 1974. One of them, former Democratic representative Wayne Owens of Utah excoriated Clinton for his wrongdoings involving Monica Lewinsky and others and called for his censure.

    "This president should be condemned for his actions," Owens said.

    Elizabeth Holtzman, who sat next to Owens yesterday and also was on the Watergate committee, said she was "saddened" by the occasion and took the president to task for his behavior, while also saying that nothing Clinton did compared to the malfeasance in office of Richard M. Nixon and his fabled co-conspirators.

    Committee member Barney Frank (D-Mass.) joked that prosecutor Kenneth Starr's comparatively trifling charges against Clinton included one involving Lewinsky that boiled down to "What did the president touch and when did he touch it?" a parody of Sen. Howard Baker's immortal Watergate question.

    Mostly what you had was committee members riding their hobby horses down yellow brick roads, primrose paths or mulberry lanes. And getting nowhere fast. A magnificent exercise in democracy it was not.

    Clinton was well served by the kickoff speaker, Gregory Craig, the White House special counsel, who proved himself a vigorous and eloquent figure so much so that Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) told Craig at midday that "you come across very well on television," at least according to members of Cannon's staff who'd been watching.

    Craig took pains to point out that Clinton "is seriously sorry for the pain and damage he has caused and for the wrongs he has committed," a response to feelings by some House Republicans that Clinton has been insufficiently contrite for lying to the American people about his relationship with Lewinsky. But Schumer noted later that you don't impeach a president "for not being contrite enough to certain members of Congress" and said that doing so amounted to "almost trivializing what ought to be a very sacred process."

    Seldom if ever did yesterday's proceedings look very sacred, although the later it got the hearing ran till almost 9 p.m. the more reasonable some participants seemed to get. Maybe they got tired of their own recycled rhetoric and decided to do some actual thinking. Hyde and the Rev. Robert Drinan, another Watergate alumnus, got into a respectable debate in the afternoon about whether holding a long impeachment trial or letting Clinton off easy would prove more disruptive and damaging to the nation and the rule of law.

    "Now we can get back to normality," Hyde said when it ended. Normality was not a very desirable state in this case.

    Dependably, various members took turns taking off on daffy flights of fancy. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) decided in late afternoon to read a prepared statement denouncing Hyde for a comment about lying he'd made during the Iran-contra scandal of 1987. She railed on and on until her allotted five minutes ran out. Hyde interceded jovially: "I ask unanimous consent that the gentlelady be granted time to continue her attack on me."

    Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), surely an eternal outsider where the intelligentsia is concerned, bit off more than he could chew, as it were, when he decided to attack Drinan for using pejoratives about the committee that Drinan hadn't used. "Don't hold me accountable for what other people said," Drinan snapped back.

    Buyer had staged an earlier tirade about imagined name-calling against the hallowed committee, telling a witness he wanted comment on this and comment on that but, as is his custom, bellowing and barking at such length that his time ran out before anybody could answer his charges. He's a great one to be defending the committee's dignity, he is.

    Worse still was the very self-satisfied Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), soon to return home to hard-won oblivion after having been defeated in the November Senate elections. Although the afternoon panel of Watergate experts was convened specifically for the purpose of comparing Then to Now, Inglis decided to lambaste them for producing no new facts or evidence about the Clinton-Lewinsky matter. Huh? He ranted on and on to the utter bafflement or annoyance of the witnesses, all this while taking himself so seriously you'd have thought he was actually making sense.

    At 7:30 p.m., Inglis repeated his charge about no-new-facts to the third panel of the day, totally ignoring a 184-page rebuttal distributed to committee members by the White House and said by Democrats to contain facts galore. Bob Inglis makes Steve Buyer look like Oliver Wendell Holmes.

    A viewer perhaps had to be grateful for such outbursts, though, on the grounds that they livened up the hearings and alleviated the predictability. Although CNN suspended commercials during most of the morning session, by the afternoon the network was cutting away for ads again, and it's doubtful that many viewers called in to complain. Anchors on MSNBC sometimes got bored with the arguments in the committee room and turned to the network's own hired commentators for arguments of their own.

    The big novelty item of the day was probably Yale Law professor Bruce Ackerman's rationale for shutting down the impeachment hearings. He said that any action taken by a lame-duck House committee would be nullified when the new Congress convenes in January, and that instead of the Senate then taking up the impeachment process, it would all revert back to the House again. Oh joy more hearings from a newly composed Judiciary Committee? That's just what America wants.

    "The wise thing to do is to stop the process now," Ackerman said. Did we perhaps hear the sound of people at home shouting, "Hooray!"?

    At this point, Hyde had toddled off, as he did several times during the day, and handed the gavel over to someone else. This was Hyde's longest toddle, about 90 minutes, to judge from what one saw on TV. Replacing him in the morning was the intemperate James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, who was nasty to Ackerman and to the Democrats in general. He was generous in allowing attacks on witnesses who then had no chance to defend themselves; oops, time was up.

    During the morning testimony, CNN broke the screen into two parts to show the hearings on the right and, on the left, President and Hillary Rodham Clinton boarding first a presidential chopper on the White House lawn and then Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base to take them to Nashville and the funeral of Albert Gore Sr., father of the vice president.

    The visual impact of the first shot, with the first couple's backs to the camera as they walked toward the helicopter, was of the president turning away from the frivolous hearings to attend to a matter of gravity and import, to be going about presidential business and paying no heed to the mischief-makers on the committee.

    Among the most ill-mannered mischief-makers: Rep. George Gekas (R-Pa.), who tried to lecture Drinan on theology and clearly didn't want any answers to the remarks he pretended were questions, since he cut off other witnesses when they attempted to respond.

    Among the most impressive witnesses: cute old Nicholas Katzenbach, who was attorney general under Lyndon Johnson (a formidable liar in his own right) and who comported himself with dignity and a compelling speaking voice no matter what. Katzenbach tried to make the point that impeachment was not intended by the founding fathers as a way of punishing a naughty president but of protecting the Republic against a dangerous one. He didn't get far, but he tried.

    Round and round the maypole they all went, curiouser and curiouser, sometimes shockingly daft. Nothing should surprise us by now, though. At some point we stepped through the looking glass into a strange parallel universe where looniness is sanity and where people squirt others with seltzer bottles and then charge them with being undignified.

    Today's hearings are supposed to start at 8 a.m. Anybody need a better reason for sleeping in?

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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