Down at the Document Dump
A Rush of Spinners
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 3, 1998; Page C01
James Carville, spokesman for the president's id, has an all-purpose take on the latest three-volume release from Ken Starr's carnal police. If Republicans think they've found a smoking gun (so to speak) in 4,610 fine-print pages, forget about it.
"My spin is that . . . it can't be bad because it would have been in Ken Starr's original report."
And if Democrats find some shard of evidence to support an embattled chief executive?
"If there's good stuff in these documents it's just more evidence that Ken Starr" Carville is yelling now "is running a !?*&$! witch hunt!"
Welcome to the Kabuki impeachment spectacle, in which every quote is choreographed, every fact unsurprising. And at this very minute the Democrats, specifically those embattled creatures on Capitol Hill and inside the White House, have very little to lose. Their president's libidinous deceits have been out there for weeks, for all to read, watch, deconstruct and psychoanalyze.
With little left to shock, these document dumps resemble ammo trains for desperate Democrats. (Last time the Democrats made much of a startling! fact: Monica Lewinsky said the president never told her to lie).
The ritual is well established: Aides at the White House and at the Democratic consulting and lobbying houses divvy up the pages 100 at a time and pore over them. The point is to fashion some partisan spears in time for the Friday night cable shows and the Sunday morning yak-athons.
"Everyone combs madly and then the White House calls the shots," says Harold Ickes, who is something of a samurai master when it comes to the art of the political counterattack. "There will be conference calls and meetings and everyone will be briefed and sent out into the maw with their talking points."
So it was that the Democrats launched a two-pronged attack yesterday. Joe Lockhart, the new White House flack, took the ceremonial first sword thrust: It's "the clearest indication that this is a partisan process designed for partisan gain rather than a solid constitutional process designed to do the work that framers of the Constitution envisioned."
At the same time, Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, massed several of his most loquacious warriors on the Capitol lawn. The air was crisp, the shadows sharp. And there was the inescapable hint that his band was on message.
Conyers: "It's a two-year politicized fishing expedition." Jerrold Nadler of New York: "It's a two-year politicized fishing expedition." Robert C. Scott of Virginia: "It's an open-ended fishing expedition."
They were also shocked at the partisan nature of the Republicans' impeachment thrust. Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia is a scholarly man who peers owlishly through his glasses. "We need to ground this in the Constitution," he said. "The public interest requires no less."
As he spook, Democratic aides slipped helpful cheat sheets into the hands of the media horde. They headlined the Democratic alternative: "1. Focused; 2. Fair; 3. Expeditious; 4. Deliberate."
The Republicans fared rather less well. Their inquiry is "1. Unlimited; 2. Arbitrary; 3. Endless; 4. Reckless."
Now, through this all, the ever-roilsome Republicans were pretty quiet. And when the Great Helmsman himself, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, strode the marbled second floor of the Capitol, he recoiled from commenting on the Republican-ordered docu-dump.
"I'm not paying any attention to that," he said. "I'm doing things that matter."
Now, lest one conclude that the Gingrich Revolution has petered out in a cloud of statesmanship, many Republicans interpret the speaker's silence as strategic. He has, in the not so distant past, been all over this impeachment question. But seemingly every time he addresses the subject, his negatives spiral skyward, along with those of the House Republicans in general.
So his advisers have begged him to silence. "We're trying to get him not to take the bait every time Carville throws out a piece of meat," explained one consultant. Gingrich "is a brilliant strategist but he comes across as a know-it-all college professor who talks too much."
Fortunately, callers can listen to Gingrich let his hair down on the the "Newt Line," his "revolutionary new toll-free, dial-up message service." In the interests of history, here are his latest thoughts:
"Chairman Hyde has assured me that he is going to continue to work to understand just how deep the charges are against the president, charges of perjury, charges of obstruction of justice, charges of witness tampering felonies very serious charges, which if true would be a deliberate undermining of the rule of law and the entire process of our courts system. No matter what the liberal Democrats do . . ."
It all tends to deflate the notion that this is History. Even in Washington, the document releases, the cable shows, the Sunday shows, the spins and counterspins, play out on a loop so self-referential as to cater essentially to party insiders and the most committed of party faithful. Indeed, at the red-brick Government Printing Office, one of those massive Washington edifices that seem certain to survive the next Ice Age, a reporter could not find a single federal worker yesterday who gave a whit what carnal secrets, what evidence of constitutional crimes, might be found within the three bound volumes they helped manufacture.
Then Mary Dejevsky bounded down the steps. She's in search of a cab, with three-volume set nestled under her arm like a hot collection of Danielle Steel's latest. She is the U.S. bureau chief for the Independent, a British broadsheet of some sophistication.
She's just paid $92 for the bound set and she cannot possibly write too much about it. It's so silly, she said, and so deliciously British.
"Our readers adore it," she said. "It has everything that a British sex scandal needs: A prominent man, a foolish young woman. And all without the resignation that stops our best scandals! So the details just keep coming and coming. . . . Well, must get going!"
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