(Buffalo Beat, 29 Janaury 1999)
& the Round Room
It's a cold grey Buffalo Tuesday afternoon. Enough snow has melted so I can see the Christmas tree we put out for pickup three weeks ago. The snow that's left is grimy gray. It's not spring, but the air is a good deal less hostile than it's been for a long time. Garbage collection occurred normally yesterday for the first time in a month.
Tomorrow, The United States Senate will vote on Senator Robert C. Byrd's resolution to shut the whole thing down. We all know there aren't 67 votes to convict, Byrd said, so why prolong the foolishness? Republican Senator Phil Gramm, the former Texas A&M economics professor who always sounds as if he's talking underwater, went on television to say he was personally distressed by Byrd's motion, but he gave no reasons why it might be a bad idea. Except for those who want to drag this all out to humiliate Bill Clinton further, no one's got a very good answer to Byrd's question. The Senate spent Monday evening in closed session to discussion the motion. It will almost certainly fail.
Earlier today, the attorneys prosecuting and defending President Clinton debated whether or not to let the House prosecutors depose and perhaps publicly examine witnesses. The prosecutors will almost certainly win that one. The White House attorneys said that if the Republican prosecutors called witnesses they'd have to call witnesses, and that if the Republicans examined witnesses they'd want to cross-examine them, and they'd also like to see if there's any exculpatory evidence in the 40,000 pages of evidence the House prosecutors have thus far kept secret. The prosecutors replied that the White House should save everyone a lot of time by forgoing the cross-examination, calling their own witnesses, or examining documents available to a defendant in any ordinary civil or criminal trial. They suggested that if the White house did try to do those things it would be just delaying operations and being obstructionist.
It reminded me of a science fiction story I read a long time ago in which the beings who inhabited an alien planed had a zoo. In one of those cages was a human being taken prisoner on an expedition to earth. The sign on the cage read: "Human. A dangerous animal. When attacked it fights back."
Saturday, January 23, was the second day of the Q&A of the House prosecutors and White House lawyers. It began with Senate chaplain Lloyd Ogilvie giving his blessing to the assembled throng. He was, as always, unctuous, pompous and jingoistic, utterly appropriate for the time, place, and audience.
The process simple, almost dull: in a flat disinterested voice, the Chief Justice read the questions and then crossed his arms, displaying the four gold bands on each he had applied after he saw a Gilbert and Sullivan performance. House prosecutors and Clinton lawyers responded to the questions. Then the Chief Justice asked another. And another. And another.
It was all recorded on videotape and audiotape, but court reporters typed it all out anyway. They worked standing up, moving close to whoever was talking at the moment, their machines hung around their necks and balanced against their bellies like hurdy-gurdys at a medieval fair. I kept expecting them to burst into a sprightly Monty Python song reminding us how absurd these proceedings are. But they never did.
Most of the questions were puffball. Republican and Democrat senators sent their respective tables questions they'd all thought up together beforehand, questions designed to let the lawyers run their mouths in ways they hadn't been able to before. (Many of the Republican puffball questions came from Strom Thurmond, who has a proprietary interest in all of this since he appointed the three-judge panel that appointed special prosecutor Kenneth Starr.) The only variants were questions on the order of "Would you like to respond to the response from [the House managers\the White House counsel] to the previous question?"
Republican senators Hutchinson of Texas and Hatch of Idaho asked "how acquittal in this case will affect laws of sexual harassment." They asked that the response be specifically in terms of Clinton's having sex with a young intern. House prosecutor Rogan immediately started talking about Paula Jones, whose case has nothing to do with the Senate proceedings or the question. No one objected.
Max Baucus (D, Montana) asked, "In view of the direct election of the president, his popularity, and short duration of his term, and in view of the fact that as House Manager Graham stated, reasonable people can differ on this case, please explain how acquitting the president will result in a threat to the immediate stability of our government."
Henry Hyde got up to deal with that one. We got a wide-angle shot as he came from the far end of the prosecutors' table. Hyde walks slowly, a curiously mincing walk for so large a man. He's got an owl head on a pear body. "He is the national role model," Hyde said.Did you grow up wanting to be president? Do your kids? Do you want them to have that kind of a job? Do you want them to have as role models Nixon and Reagan and Bush and Clinton?He is the man. He is the flag-bearer in front of our country. He is the person, his office is the person every parent says to their little child, 'I hope you grow up and be president of the United States someday.' We do nothing as important as raising our kids. And the president is the role model for every kid in the country. And when you have a president who lies and lies and lies under oath--and that's the key phrase, 'under oath,' I don't care about his private life or his matters that are not public--but when he takes an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth, and then lies and lies and lies, what kind of a lesson is that for our kids and our grandkids?....What do you say to master sergeants who have their careers destroyed because they hit on an inferior member of the military. No. We are setting the parameters of permissible presidential conduct where the one office that ought to gleam in the sunlight..... and the kids, that's what moves me, the kids.
The big brouhaha of the week happened after Byrd said he was going to introduce his resolution to shut it all down. House prosecutor Henry Hyde went postal and announced that his crew was going to get special prosecutor Starr to force Monica Lewinsky to talk to them over the weekend. The fragile bipartisan pose the Senate had put on for the press started unraveling on the spot. Senator Patrick Leahy (D, Vermont) described Hyde's gambit as "An act of arrogant desperation." Sen John Breaux (D, Louisiana) characterized it as a "Last minute Hail Mary pass."
House prosecutor Bill McCollum (the one who looks like a chipmunk with no upper lip) argued that deposing Lewinsky was just a matter of lawyers getting to know a potential witness. House prosecutor James Sensenbrenner said "What we're doing is absolutely routine." And on Sunday morning's "Meet the Press," Hyde said, "We just want to find out the sort of witness she would be before we submit her name as the kind of witness we want to have."
Horseshit. They did it to prevent the Senate from coming to a quick resolution. They hoped to get something with which they could embarrass the Senate into extending this further and further. Monica wasn't deposed until Sunday afternoon because all the key players on the House prosecutor team were making the rounds of the Sunday morning talk shows. Twenty-one senators were also on Sunday morning talk shows. All their protests about how much they hate this process notwithstanding, these guys are getting huge publicity out of the impeachment trial.
By all accounts, Lewinsky gave the prosecutors nothing at variance with any of her former performances, so they subsequently argued that it was important to call her as a witness so the senators could look her in the eye. Senator Tom Daschle, the minority leader, said, "If each one of us looks into the eyes--I expect five minutes looking into eyes time one hundred--you're talking about a lot of eye-looking."
Hyde knows they're not going to get a conviction out of this, so why the desperate push to extend the freakshow with witnesses who are unlikely to say anything they haven't said the previous ten or twenty times they've testified? Maybe he's doing a Hail Mary: hoping for something deliciously unexpected. Everyone in Congress remembers Alexander Butterfield, the Nixon White House employee who casually mentioned the taping system no one outside the White House knew existed. But Butterfield dropped that datum the first time he was deposed, not the tenth or twentieth.
Hyde and the other baker's dozen members of his House prosecutor committee (every single one of them a church-going white male) remind me of the American officer in Vietnam who said "it was necessary to destroy the village in order to save it." They remind me of the Israeli fanatic who slaughtered people praying in a mosque and the Israeli fanatic who murdered Prime Minister Rabin and the Hamas terrorist who blew up a busful of Jews, all of them passionately hoping that their acts of blood would counter the attempts of other people to achieve peace. They reminds me of all those true believers who, knowing they can't win, do whatever they can to make sure no one else does either.
My favorite House prosecutor is Lindsay Graham. He's like somebody driving on ice who doesn't know whether to brake, steer, accelerate or go out the window. He's somebody who starts a paragraph and gets freaked when he realizes how it's got to end. The more out of control he gets, the more he stresses words and the more he points his fingers. He's the only one of the House prosecutors who points with the index fingers of both hands at the same time, like World War II ack-ack guns.On ABC's "This Week," Sam Donaldson asked Graham what new information they could possibly hope to get from Lewinsky after 22 former extensive testimonies and depositions. "What is this all about?" Graham replied.Let me just say this as directly as I know how to say it. That if this body as a whole believes that we're going to do anything improper, then whatever rule you need to fashion to make sure we don't, you do it. Because NOBODY should ever doubt whether a witness comes into THIS body in THIS case and gave anything other testimony that was truthful. And if you want to go down the ROAD of the atmosphere that people were approached and how they were TREATED about BEING witnesses, let's go down THAT ROAD together.Far out.How many trials in America have witnesses? How many shows have guests? All we want to do is tell the story. I tell you as a prosecutor I've won a few cases from the defense. And we may put her on and it may blow up in our face. And if you agree, that's a fact, and that's a possibility. And every question that's been asked hasn't been asked, every answer that's out there potentially hasn't been given. This is an idea to me that is ridiculous that we're sitting here talking about whether or not we should be allowed to present our case.
Some folksy people are profoundly intelligent, like Harry Truman and Dale Bumpers. Graham is, well, folksy. He's is from western South Carolina, an area where, the New York Times reports, you get pamphlets about Jesus instead of condom machines in truck-stop toilets. He makes me think of that wonderful moment in Blazing Saddles when the bearded prospector, Gabby Johnson, gets up in front of the congregation and proclaims, "I wash born here, an I wash raished here, and dad gum it, I am gonna die here, an no sidewindin bushwackin, hornswaglin, cracker croaker is gonna rouin me bishen cutter." Someone thanks him for "That genuine bit of frontier gibberish." Gabby Johnson could have been a bearded and older Lindsay Graham , only one of them was made up by Mel Brooks and one of them is real.
The Round Room
I spent some time this past week casting about for wisdom to help me make sense of the whole pursuit of the president, the impeachment trial, the smarmy grandstanding of the politicians, but none of my philosophy or political science or ordinary history books provided guidance.
Then I found this, in Charles Mackay's preface to his Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (London, 1852):Bill Clinton has been hurt by this, a self-inflicted wound as many have said, but I think the damage to Congress has been far greater. In another publication earlier in this sad affair I referred to the radical right individuals ramrodding this smarmy operation as "scumsucking dogs," after which a few people asked me if that weren't perhaps a little extreme. I thought about it and decided no, it's not, but now I understand that the scumsucking dogs are only the stimulus, they're not the entire organism. What's really sad is how the House, most of whose members know better, and the Senate, nearly all of whose members know better, haven't been able to shut it down.In reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the rest. We see one nation suddenly seized, from its highest to its lowest members, with a fierce desire of military glory; another as suddenly becoming crazed upon a religious scruple; and neither of them recovering its senses until it has shed rivers of blood and sowed a harvest of groans and tears, to be reaped by its posterity.
In 1968 I drove John Davis, a 75-year-old man who had spent his entire life on one of the Georgia Sea Islands, from Washington's National Airport to a friend's house a few blocks from the Library of Congress. On the way, John asked if we could drive by the Capitol, which he'd seen only in pictures. As we went through the curving Capitol drive (you can't do that now: concrete anti-bomb barricades won't let you near the place) John said, "Yes, that's why they can't get nothing right. That building is round in the middle." He pointed at the Capitol rotunda. "You can't get your head straight in a round room. You need corners to know where you are."
At the time, I thought John's remarks quaint. Now I think them prescient.
copyright 1999 Bruce Jacksonemail: email@example.com