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(The Last) Trial of the Century!

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  • By Peter Carlson
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, January 4, 1999; Page C01

    The verdict is in: The impeachment trial of President Clinton will be the "trial of the century."

    We know this is true in the same way we know so many other things are true -- because everybody says so.

    "It will truly be the trial of the century," Alan Dershowitz wrote in USA Today.

    "It will be the real trial of the century," Tom Brokaw said on NBC News.

    "Without doubt, the trial of the century," Cynthia McFadden said on ABC News.

    "Trial of the Century," reads the huge headline on the cover of the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine. The Independent, a liberal London newspaper, agrees. So does Agence France-Presse. And the New York Post, the New York Daily News, the Detroit News, and the Rock Hill (S.C.) News, all of which termed the upcoming impeachment battle "the trial of the century."

    This is not surprising. Americans love "the trial of the century." That's why we have one every few years. We're overdue now. We haven't had a good trial of the century since O.J. was acquitted -- and that was more than three years ago. It's high time for another one. Or two.

    "Forget O.J.," says the New York Daily News. "This will be the trial of the century."

    "Forget O.J.," says the Hartford Courant. "The real trial of the century is taking place right now in a Washington, D.C., courtroom where mighty Microsoft is going toe-to-toe with the Department of Justice."

    The impeachment trial or the Microsoft trial, it's up to you -- pick your favorite trial of the century of the moment.

    Calling court cases "the trial of the century" is a traditional bit of American hyperbole, like calling a circus "The Greatest Show on Earth." Nearly every juicy tabloid trial in our history was called the "trial of the century" by somebody.

    "Every time I turn around, there's a new trial of the century," says defense attorney F. Lee Bailey, who participated in two of them -- the Simpson trial and Sam Sheppard's 1954 murder trial, which inspired the TV show and movie "The Fugitive."

    Sometimes prosecutors or defense attorneys bestow the honorific. More often, it's the media. Reporters love a good trial. It's a real-life drama, complete with mystery, suspense, conflict, colorful characters, snappy dialogue and an exciting climax.

    In November 1926, the legendary newsman Damon Runyon wrote: "In this pleasant-looking little town of Somerville, in the heart of old New Jersey, and in a pleasant-looking little court house, all white and trim, the trial of the century starts this morning at ten o'clock."

    He was referring to the Hall-Stevens trial, a delightfully lurid murder case that attracted 300 reporters, requiring the phone company to bring in a special switchboard and 28 extra operators. The victims were a minister and a woman who sang in his church choir. They were found shot to death, embracing under a crab apple tree with their love letters strewn across their corpses. The defendants were the minister's wife and her two brothers. The key witness was an eccentric, mule-riding female hog farmer, known to tabloid readers as "the Pig Woman."

    Ah, the Pig Woman! Who could ever forget the Pig Woman?

    Actually, almost everybody has forgotten the Pig Woman. But in her day, she was as famous as Kato Kaelin or Linda Tripp -- the star witness in the trial that served as "the trial of the century" during the period that came between the end of the Scopes "Monkey Trial" of 1925 and the beginning of the sensational Ruth Snyder-Judd Gray murder trial of 1927.

    The '20s were a very good decade for trials of the century. And the 20th has been a very good century for trials of the century.

    The first came in 1907, when Harry K. Thaw was tried for the murder of Stanford White, America's most famous architect. Thaw was a rich playboy who married Evelyn Nesbit, a show girl who was the Marilyn Monroe of her day. Nesbit told Thaw that White had once lured her to his secret love nest and raped her. Irate, Thaw strolled up to White during a musical performance at Madison Square Garden and shot him dead as the crowd watched in horror.

    At Thaw's trial, his high-priced lawyers argued that he was not guilty because he was suffering from a form of temporary insanity they termed "dementia Americana" -- a disease that causes a red-blooded American male to go mad when he learns that someone has violated "the sanctity of his home or the purity of his wife."

    For weeks, witnesses provided steamy testimony about the kinky sex lives of White and his rich friends and their show biz sweethearts.

    The jury deadlocked. That necessitated another trial, which delighted the press. The second jury found Thaw not guilty by reason of insanity. By then, said the New York Times, the case was "being reported to the ends of the civilized globe."

    Irvin S. Cobb, one of the great reporters of the day, explained why the trial transfixed the nation:

    "You see, it had in it wealth, degeneracy, rich old wasters, delectable young chorus girls and adolescent artists' models; the behind-the-scenes of Theatredom and the Underworld, and the Great White Way. . . . the abnormal pastimes and weird orgies of overly aesthetic artists and jaded debauchees. In the cast of the motley show were Bowery toughs, Harlem gangsters, Tenderloin panderers, Broadway leading men, Fifth Avenue clubmen, Wall Street manipulators, uptown voluptuaries and downtown thugs."

    That same year, 1907, there was another "trial of the century" -- a very different case in a very different place. William D. "Big Bill" Haywood, a leader of the Western Federation of Miners, went on trial in Boise, charged with hiring the man who murdered a former Idaho governor who had crushed a miner's strike years earlier. The case split the nation. Thousands of union members and socialists marched to defend Haywood while President Theodore Roosevelt denounced him and his supporters as "undesirable citizens."

    The chief prosecutor was Sen. William Borah. The chief defense attorney was Clarence Darrow. The prosecution's star witness was the assassin, Harry Orchard, who admitted that he was a thief, bigamist, arsonist, swindler and mass murderer while testifying that Haywood had hired him to kill the union's enemies. Haywood took the stand and calmly denied the charges. After months of inconclusive testimony, the case came down to the closing arguments, which were classics of old-fashioned tear-jerking courtroom oratory.

    "Gentlemen, it is not for him alone that I speak," Darrow told the jury. "I speak for the poor, for the weak, for the weary, for that long line of men who, in darkness and despair have borne the labor of the human race."

    "We see anarchy, that pale, restless, hungry demon from the crypts of Hell fighting for a foothold in Idaho," Borah countered. "Should we compromise with it? Or should we crush it?"

    After more than 12 hours of impassioned monologues by the attorneys, the case went to the jury, which deliberated for a day and then found Haywood not guilty.

    Those two 1907 trials -- Thaw's and Haywood's -- set the tone for most of the century's many "trials of the century." Some, like Thaw's, would become famous because they dealt with sex and celebrity and low doings in high places -- the 1921 rape trial of actor Fatty Arbuckle, the 1934 Gloria Vanderbilt custody trial, the trials of Claus von Bulow, Jean Harris, William Kennedy Smith, Marion Barry and, of course, O.J. Simpson. Other trials, like Haywood's, would become famous because they dealt with political controversies -- the Scopes "Monkey Trial," the perjury trial of Alger Hiss, the espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the trials of Oliver North and, yes, Marion Barry.

    The impeachment trial of President Clinton will, of course, contain all these elements -- politics, sex, celebrity and some very low doings in very high places.

    Drama in Real Life

    "People are fascinated by trials because they're like mystery stories -- you don't know what the ending is and they're full of twists," says Lawrence Friedman, author of "Crime and Punishment in American History" and a law professor at Stanford University. "In a trial, there are always two narratives, two stories being told, and you don't know which one is true. It's dramatic but it's also real life."

    "A trial is a good story," says Douglas Linder, who teaches a course on famous American trials at the University of Missouri law school in Kansas City. "As novelists know, it's the specificity of detail that makes a story compelling, and in a trial we become familiar with people's lives in the kind of detail we rarely get in any other way. And then it all comes to a climax when the jury makes the decision."

    Countless trials have captivated the American public in the last 99 years. Which is the real trial of the century?

    Maybe it was the 1924 trial of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two rich young geniuses who kidnapped and murdered a boy they chose at random, just for the thrill of it. Their parents hired Darrow, who conceded that his clients were guilty and then saved them from the gallows with an emotional 12-hour speech that left the judge in tears.

    Or maybe it was the 1925 trial of John Scopes for violating Tennessee's law against teaching evolution in public schools. Scopes's arrest was orchestrated by businessmen in Dayton, Tenn., who hoped that a trial would bring the town publicity. It did. With former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan joining the prosecution and Darrow joining the defense, the trial became a huge media circus. When Darrow cross-examined Bryan about whether the Bible was literally true, the crowd was so huge that the judge moved the case to the courthouse lawn, where kids hawked cool drinks while Darrow made a fool of Bryan in a scene later immortalized in the play and movie "Inherit the Wind."

    Or maybe it was the 1935 trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann for kidnapping and murdering Charles Lindbergh's baby. Not only did reporters call it "the trial of the century" but America's most famous reporter, H.L. Mencken, called it, only half-jokingly, "the biggest story since the Resurrection."

    Or maybe it was the 1945 Nuremberg trial, in which 22 Nazi leaders, including Hermann Goering and Albert Speer, were tried for crimes against humanity. Or the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi concentration camp commandant who was kidnapped in Argentina by Israeli agents and tried in Jerusalem, sitting in a specially constructed bulletproof glass booth.

    Or maybe it was the 1969 trial of the Chicago 8 -- anti-war activists accused of conspiracy to incite riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The defendants included Yippies Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin and Black Panthers leader Bobby Seale, who was bound and gagged and severed from the case after loudly demanding the right to defend himself (turning the remaining defendants into the Chicago 7). This was one of the few trials with musical accompaniment: Defense witness Arlo Guthrie sang "Alice's Restaurant," and Judy Collins, another defense witness, sang "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" until the judge ordered a marshal to clap his hand over her mouth. The trial was so self-consciously theatrical that the defense published a quasi-official program, titled "Official Pogrom."

    Or maybe it was the 1970 Los Angeles trial of Charles Manson and his hippie "family" for murdering actress Sharon Tate and six other people and scrawling the title of a Beatles song, "Helter Skelter," on the wall in blood. Manson enlivened the proceedings by carving an "X" into his forehead and attempting to attack the judge with a pen.

    Or maybe it was the court-martial of Lt. William Calley for murdering scores of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai . . . Or the trial of Angela Davis . . . Or the trial of Patty Hearst . . . Or the Lee Marvin palimony trial . . . Or the Pulitzer divorce trial, which inspired the tabloid headline "Strumpet With a Trumpet." . . . Or the trial of subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz . . . Or the trial of televangelist Jim Bakker . . . Or the trial of John Gotti . . . or Mike Tyson . . . Or the trial of the cops who beat Rodney King -- a trial that sparked a riot that left 58 people dead.

    Or maybe it really was the O.J. trial.

    But maybe there's actually no such thing as the "trial of the century." Maybe the whole concept is absurd, like the idea of "The Great American Novel."

    Friedman leans toward this view. "It's a kind of hype," he says. "It's a way of saying, 'This is really fabulous. It's really sensational.' But it doesn't really mean anything."

    Linder agrees that the term is meaningless, but he's willing to pick his top three trials anyway. "If media interest is the criteria, Lindbergh would be Number 1, with Scopes and Simpson not far behind."

    Friedman disagrees. "If you take the total number of words and images, O.J. tops them all. The O.J. trial was seen on TV by countless millions all over the world."

    He tells a story: He was invited to address the bar association in Bangkok and he dutifully submitted a list of serious legal topics for the speech.

    "I got a reply saying, 'Could you talk about the O.J. Simpson case?' " He laughs. "In my naivete, I thought they'd never heard of it."

    Clinton's TOTC Chances

    If there is such a thing as the "trial of the century," the Clinton impeachment case looks like a contender for the title -- at least on paper.

    It's got sex, power, politics, and a colorful cast of characters, including the president of the United States and his buxom young mistress. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist would be the presiding judge and the jury would be composed of 100 loquacious celebrities -- the United States Senate.

    But there are problems. First, the defendant probably won't be there to react to the evidence against him. The only other president ever impeached, Andrew Johnson, never showed up at his trial. Furthermore, the Senate is exhibiting a lamentable lack of excitement about staging a full-blown, no-holds-barred, tell-the-court-exactly-what-happened-next-Miss-Lewinsky trial. And the actual crime is, well, a tad underwhelming.

    "The Clinton trial may be a fizzle," F. Lee Bailey says. "I don't think you can elevate a personal [sex act] into the trial of the century."

    "We don't even know if there's going to be a trial," Friedman says. "The Republicans seem reluctant. Trent Lott says there won't be any witnesses. If he sticks to that, it's going to be very dry."

    Linder is a bit more optimistic. "If you get Bill Rehnquist looking at the dress and passing it around, it could be wild," he says. "If they bring in Betty Currie and Monica Lewinsky and Ken Starr and they testify and answer questions, it would be a huge story. But there are ways they could make it boring. If they handle it without live witnesses, the public could be uninterested."

    So maybe Dershowitz and Brokaw and the Weekly Standard and all those other prognosticators are wrong. Maybe the impeachment won't be "the trial of the century" after all.

    But there's no need to panic. It's still early January and, as ABC news commentators Aaron Brown and Jeffrey Toobin revealed on a recent "Good Morning America," there's still plenty of time for another trial of the century -- or maybe more.

    "The way I figure it," Brown said, "we have got time in 1999 for at least two trials of the century."

    "That's right," Toobin replied. "Bring 'em on!"

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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