Opening Argument – The ‘Agony’ Of Facing The Facts

National Journal

Much ink has been spilled about the felt need of all civilized people to avoid the ”agony” of having (gasp!) witnesses testify about (eek!) facts in the well of the Senate.

Hide in your homes! Lock up your children! Smash your TV sets! The Great Trauma is coming! Monica is marching on the Capitol–and she’s going to go on and on for months about . . . I Can’t Bear To Say It!

Well. I am told by two of the 13 House managers who will prosecute the case that their witnesses should take only a week or two, and that their direct examination of Monica Lewinsky about what President Clinton called their ”inappropriate, intimate” contacts will probably go something like this: Q: Ms. Lewinsky, did you give sworn testimony on Aug. 6 and 20 to the grand jury convened by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, and on Aug. 26 in a deposition taken by his staff?

A: Yes.

Q: And do you have with you the official transcripts of that testimony?

A: Yes.

Q: Have you reread them today?

A: Yes.

Q: Are they an accurate account of your testimony in every respect?

A: They are.

Q: In particular, is your testimony in these transcripts entirely accurate as to details of the 10 meetings during which you had sexual contacts with the President, and he with you, between November 1995 and March 1997?

A: Yes.

Q: And is your current recollection of those 10 meetings consistent with that testimony in every detail?

A: Yes.

Q: And how detailed is your current recollection of those 10 meetings?

A: Very detailed.

Q: Thank you. I have no further questions on that subject.

Now I’d like to inquire into your discussions with the President, with Betty Currie, with Vernon Jordan, and with others in late 1997 and January 1998 about the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit and your hunt for a job. . . .

Sorry, Geraldo, no cigar. No thong underwear either. And no Linda Tripp.

What President Clinton and his defenders fear is not an undignified reprise of the salacious details that were unwisely highlighted in the Starr report. What they fear are the facts– the stubborn evidence of Clinton’s criminal cover-up, from which they have desperately averted their eyes, and diverted public attention, at every juncture over the past year.

Their nightmare scenario is now a real trial, with real witnesses–the kind that Alexander Hamilton had in mind when he wrote that Senate impeachment trials should provide ”real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.”

The House managers want to tell the Senate and the public the story of Clinton’s cover-up, from the early planning stages through the Jan. 17 lies under oath to the judge in the Paula Jones case, the alleged obstructions of justice, the lies to the nation, the Aug. 17 grand jury perjuries, and the brazen and unrepentant lies that are still the heart of the Clinton defense. The general outline–”he lied about sex”–is widely known. But the details are not. And the details get uglier and uglier the more you look at them.

So, a full prosecution case most likely would be simple, dignified, and brief–and still perhaps quite damaging to the President. It would have the healthy effect of forcing the Senators–who took oaths on Thursday to render ”impartial justice”–to fully come to grips with what the President did, and to think hard about whether he committed crimes so serious that they would land a Senator (for example) in federal prison.

It won’t take more than two to three weeks of actual testimony. (I’m betting that Clinton’s lawyers don’t call a single fact witness.) The warnings, by Senate Democratic leader Thomas Daschle of South Dakota and others, that a trial with witnesses could consume many months and drag the Senate through the gutter are scarecrows.

Except for one possibility: The trial could get dragged into what-did-the-President-touch land–if the President makes it happen.

Will Clinton tell his lawyers to defend a story that nobody believes by savaging Lewinsky in an X-rated cross- examination as a serial perjurer? (The story I am referring to is, of course, Clinton’s amazing claim during his Aug. 17 grand jury testimony that he never touched Lewinsky intimately and thus was truthful in his Jan. 17 denials of ”sexual relations.”) Will he then take the stand himself to contradict his former girlfriend under oath?

I wouldn’t put it past the man. But it’s hard to imagine that any sane lawyer would advise him to do it. For if Clinton does this, it will be clear to every Senator, and every other sentient American, just who it was who dragged the trial down into the gutter and just which members of the bar presented transparently false testimony.

And challenging Lewinsky directly would also expose a central fraud in Clinton’s defense–his insistence that Lewinsky’s testimony is false but that he isn’t really calling her a liar.

Given all this, Clinton and his lawyers will probably decide not to cross-examine Lewinsky about the sex and not to have him take the stand. Instead, while offering no serious rebuttal to the evidence of Clinton’s grand jury perjuries, they will seek to undermine the import of Lewinsky’s grand jury testimony about the cover-up, including her recollection that Clinton suggested in a 2 a.m. phone call on Dec. 17, 1997, that she could use a sworn affidavit and misleading cover stories to dodge her subpoena from Jones’ lawyers.

Lewinsky’s volunteered testimony to the grand jury that ”no one ever asked me to lie”–not, at least, in so many words–might give Clinton’s lawyers a good start at an effective cross-examination rebutting the charge that Clinton committed witness-tampering by coaching her. On the other hand, Lewinsky may explain what happened in a way far more devastating to Clinton than anything she has said so far. Let’s find out. That’s what trials are for.

The President’s lawyers may also score in cross-examining the other two major witnesses to Clinton’s alleged obstructions of justice, his secretary Betty Currie and his friend Vernon Jordan. Both are apparently loyal to the President. Maybe their testimony will leave reasonable Senators unconvinced that the President obstructed justice. Maybe not. Again, let’s find out.

Most other prosecution witnesses will be minor figures supplying minor points. The most important may be Dick Morris, Clinton’s longtime political and polling guru, and Sidney Blumenthal, the special assistant to the President for conspiracy theories and oppo research. Through these two, the House managers will seek to dramatize that the Clinton cover-up was animated by a deeply dishonest and lawless state of mind.

It was the not-so-loyal Morris who told the grand jury that last Jan. 21 (the day the Lewinsky story broke), he had told Clinton that his polling data showed the public to be unready to forgive perjury or obstruction, and the President had replied: ”Well, we just have to win then.” This set the stage for Clinton’s succession of lies to the nation and his surrogates’ attacks on Starr.

It was the loyal-but-unwittingly-devastating Blumenthal who told the grand jury that Clinton had told him (also on Jan. 21) that Lewinsky was known as a ”stalker,” who had ”come on to me and made a sexual demand on me,” and who, when rebuffed, had ”threatened (to) tell people they’d had an affair.” Lewinsky was thereafter so characterized in media reports emanating from . . . let’s find out.

The House managers may use such evidence to suggest that Clinton was laying the groundwork for a nasty little smear of his former girlfriend. They may also suggest a reason that that particular smear never got into high gear: Clinton’s caution to Morris (as alleged in the latter’s grand jury testimony) that ”there’s some slight chance that she may not be cooperating with Starr, and we don’t want to alienate her by anything we’re going to put out.”

A trial delving into such facts won’t be pretty. But it won’t be porn either. And it will give us all a deeper insight into the texture of the President’s alleged crimes, of his other lies, of his trustworthiness and character under stress, and of the breathtaking hypocrisy of his complaints about ”the politics of personal destruction.”

What better way could be devised for the Senate, and the nation, to arrive at an informed and principled decision about whether Bill Clinton is fit to serve out his term as President?