By Ruth Marcus
The witness list signals that the White House will stick to familiar themes in its final bid to forestall Clinton's impeachment -- that this episode is not remotely like Watergate, the last time a president stood on the verge of impeachment, and that, however tawdry, Clinton's behavior does not rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors.
Judiciary Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R.-Ill.) -- who has been criticized by committee Democrats for not calling witnesses who could testify about the facts -- expressed that very frustration with the White House yesterday.
"I'd like to hear something on the facts," he said. "There are lots of questions that we'd like to hear some evidence on, but we'll hear from professors giving us their interpretation, perhaps unique, of the Constitution."
The White House, addressing those gaps on its list, pointed the finger back at Republicans. "One of the things you have to recognize is that the committee didn't call anyone, so there is no one necessarily to rebut," said White House press secretary Joe Lockhart.
Rather than figures such as presidential secretary Betty Currie or Clinton friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr., the witnesses will include three Democrats who served on the committee during the Watergate impeachment proceedings -- former representatives Elizabeth Holtzman (N.Y.), Wayne Owens (Utah) and Robert F. Drinan (Mass.) -- and two other Watergate alumni with close ties to the Clinton administration. They will try to pound home the case that Clinton is no Richard M. Nixon, and independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr no Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor fired by Nixon.
"I'm one of the few people in the world who ever voted for an impeachment and what are the standards," said Drinan, a Georgetown University law professor who has already told the committee his dubious view of the merits of the case against Clinton. He and Owens co-authored a recent article arguing that the panel's 1974 vote against impeaching Nixon for tax fraud showed that "personal misconduct is not an impeachable offense."
"I'm not the guy," Drinan said yesterday. "I thought I was not going to appear and then they [the White House] called me this morning. I said to them, 'Get a Republican veteran, Tom Railsback or Larry Hogan or somebody,' " referring to Republicans on the Judiciary Committee during the Nixon proceedings.
Another Watergate veteran who will testify today, James Hamilton, served as assistant chief counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee, helped with background checks for new members of the administration when Clinton was first elected and represented White House deputy counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr.
His fellow panelist is Richard Ben-Veniste, who was a Watergate prosecutor, served as the Democrats' counsel on the Senate Whitewater Committee and has been a ubiquitous pro-Clinton fixture on the television talk show circuit since the Lewinsky allegations arose.
Ben-Veniste wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times called "The Case Against Ken Starr," and while the White House chose not to highlight its anti-Starr case with a separate panel on the subject, it said yesterday that Ben-Veniste's task will be to "compare the methods of gathering and transmitting evidence during the Watergate investigation to Mr. Starr's inquiry."
Most of the other witnesses also have put their views firmly on the record. Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, who will testify on this morning's first panel about "historical precedents and constitutional standards," helped rally a group of 400 historians to Clinton's defense.
Another member of that panel, Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, who served as attorney general under President Lyndon B. Johnson, joined Hamilton and two of Clinton's former White House counsels, Lloyd N. Cutler and Abner J. Mikva, to argue in an op-ed piece for a congressional resolution of censure, "accompanied by a significant financial penalty."
The chances of that panel -- or any of the three others -- swaying minds on the Judiciary Committee is remote at best, given that a Judiciary subcommittee heard a long day of testimony on the same topic from 19 legal scholars just last month.
"There is the term in law, when you have additional evidence, having already introduced some -- it's called 'make weight,' " Hyde said of the White House witnesses. "It's make-weight evidence."
For their part, White House officials make little pretense that they are trying to convince committee members. "It's fairly clear where the votes are on the committee . . . but the eyes of the House, the Senate and the nation are on these proceedings," said spokesman Jim Kennedy.
The day will start, after an opening statement by White House special counsel Gregory B. Craig, with the constitutional big picture and the warning that impeaching a president for what the White House sees as such trivial offenses would threaten the institution of the presidency.
The afternoon panel, entitled "Abuse of Power," will feature the three former members of Congress. As outlined by the White House, they will "testify about abuse of power as the constitutional basis for impeaching a president," as well as "the standard of proof -- what facts must be established and to what level of certainty -- that should be satisfied before articles of impeachment are approved," and try to debunk the notion pushed by some Republicans "that impeachment is tantamount to a constitutional censure."
The 6 p.m. panel of Hamilton and Ben-Veniste is entitled "How to Evaluate the Evidence," but the subtext is clearly Watergate and Starr. Hamilton, the White House said, will argue "that the evidence of abuse of power during the Nixon years warranted impeachment while the comparable evidence against President Clinton under consideration by the committee at the moment does not." Likewise, Ben-Veniste's presentation about Starr is intended to "discuss the importance of public confidence in the fairness and impartiality of the independent counsel."
Wednesday morning will feature a lineup of five lawyers who, according to the White House, "will argue that the facts and circumstances surrounding the conduct of President Clinton . . . would not result in his criminal prosecution" in a normal case. That afternoon, the closing argument will be made by another Watergate veteran -- White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff.
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