Starr dust, pundit bust

Steve Erickson on why Kenneth Starr will crash and burn on Thursday

Published November 18, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

To even the most literal-minded, it has to be obvious now that a shift in the American political Zeitgeist is taking place -- though what its final result will be remains to be seen. The soundtrack for this new Zeitgeist might be Mercury Rev's weird and haunting new "Deserter's Songs," a CD I intend to play during Kenneth Starr's testimony to Congress tomorrow; if Lincoln's "mystic chords of memory" were pop music, it would sound like this. Though this shift became clear with the election a couple of weeks ago, in fact it began, in metaphorically appropriate fashion, on the last day of summer.

That was the Tuesday, Sept. 22, following Congress' release of the
videotape of Clinton's testimony to the grand jury in the Monica Lewinsky investigation. On that day, after wide anticipation by both the media and the political establishment that the tape would doom Clinton's presidency for good, new polls showed that overnight the president's ratings had risen six points and those of Congress had plummeted 12. Of course it's easy in hindsight to say so, but in typical fashion both the politicians and the media had missed what was important about the tape: They assumed the public would be focusing on the president's answers. Instead, what people heard were the questions.

The same smart money that predicted Clinton's downfall after the videotape
release now predicts Starr will "exceed expectations" in his appearance before Congress, and to some extent vindicate himself before the public. The special prosecutor has become so demonized, the argument goes, he can't help but look good. It's a nitwitted argument. It might apply to Lewinsky if she winds up testifying, because the public opinion of her is based not so much on what she's done but who she is, or who the public thinks she is. It's exactly the opposite with Starr. Come this weekend, at best his poll numbers will remain unchanged and may even be worse, because what people despise is not who he is but what he's done; and with every word of testimony he utters before Henry Hyde's committee, he'll remind people of the various decisions he's made along the way to investigate matters that people believe are profoundly private and out of bounds to the state. If Starr's testimony is calm and low-key, he'll just seem that much colder and more bloodless. If it's heated and indignant, he'll just seem that much more judgmental and perverse.

In the testimony's immediate aftermath, the more fascinating spectacle will
be how the TV media portrays it. If there were still some element of journalistic integrity involved, the answer to that question would obviously depend on Starr's performance, and we'll get a truer assessment of that from the print media, which throughout the scandal has done a better job of maintaining its bearings. Even the ever-snide Newsweek, for instance, is redeemed by Jonathan Alter, who on a week-in-week-out basis has kept a sense of perspective and brought insight to the general paroxysm of analysis. But by now the TV news media is so gun-shy about the whole matter that, like the pols in the White House or Republican Party, they'll wait for the polls before rendering a verdict on the Sunday morning talk shows. Constantly jockeying for some satisfactory position vis-à-vis both public opinion and Clinton, while still trying to leave itself an out, the electronic media will impose a 24-hour blackout on Meaning before it says much about Starr at all.

These days the pundits' rooting interest in impeachment has nowhere to go.
It was interesting how, last Friday and Saturday, opinion confabs like "The McLaughlin Group" were creaming Clinton for bombing Iraq before he had even done it, and then Sunday morning creamed him for not doing it. The media isn't quite sure what to do about Clinton anymore: What do you say when, like Tim Russert, you've already referred to the president as "evil"? At that point credibility and objectivity have been rendered bankrupt; some of us remember when the Holocaust was evil, not two consenting adults playing around with a Corona. If Tim Russert really thought Clinton was evil, you could at least respect it. But conviction has nothing to do with it; what it has to do with is vivid and inflammatory TV, for which a sense of moral proportion isn't very compelling.

Ten months ago on ABC's "This Week," on the weekend the Lewinsky scandal first
broke and the Clinton presidency was tottering on the edge, George Will forcefully made the argument that impeachment wasn't a legal mechanism but a political one. He suggested that extraordinary political reasons, including unseemly if not illegal conduct, were enough to justify impeachment. For the most part over the years Will has been a rare bird -- an intellectually honest ideologue -- so we'll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he made this argument because he believed it. But if one happened to disapprove of Clinton anyway and wouldn't be so disappointed to see him go, then Will's argument was also tactically shrewd, because at the time the legal case against the president was still sketchy but it could safely be assumed the bottom was about to fall out for him politically. On the way to the November election, of course, something else happened: The bottom did not fall out; public consensus formed not against Clinton but against his investigator; and with stupefying dispatch the Republicans in the House of Representatives transformed the question from one of the president's fitness to one of Congress' fairness.

Now Will doesn't talk on TV anymore about the political nature of
impeachment. Rather his distaste for the president has apparently gotten the better of intellectual honesty, and now he makes wryly ironic asides as to how Congress must determine whether grounds for impeachment include "sustained criminality," to quote him from just this past Sunday. Leave aside for the moment the fact that, as Will fully knows, there has been no proven "sustained criminality," and that it was Starr's failed effort to establish such criminality -- as pertaining to Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate and Vincefostergate -- that led him, out of sheer frustration, into the Lewinsky morass to begin with. The point is that, because the political argument has evaporated and the legal one is the only one left, Will has stood his original argument on its head, now suggesting impeachment turns more on legal questions than political ones.

To be fair, sooner or later intellectual honesty discomforts almost
everyone. The brutal fact of the matter is that, if you're remotely honest about it, you have to concede that the case for Clinton's impeachment is not entirely without merit. While Starr's abuse-of-power and obstruction-of- justice charges against the president transparently have more to do with partisan zealotry than a love of justice, the perjury charge -- of which Clinton is almost certainly guilty -- is rather different; it's not so unreasonable to suggest one of the basic and perfunctory requirements of being the country's chief executive might be telling the truth under oath. If this were President Dan Quayle we were talking about, those of us making excuses for Clinton would be howling for his head.

The best argument in Clinton's defense is that, given the recent revelations
about the byzantine plotting between Starr and Paula Jones' lawyers and the wonderfully malignant Linda Tripp, as well as the growing speciousness of the rationale by which Janet Reno green-lighted the investigation in the first place, the case against the president has at the least involved a kind of entrapment. At worst, an ends-justifies-the-means mind-set among Republicans has become so ruthlessly ferocious over the months it finally led Congress to actually release grand jury testimony -- in ordinary instances a felony, and a transgression against democracy and due process arguably worse than what the president is most credibly charged with. As in regular legal cases where charges are thrown out of court because they've been brought against the defendant in a manner illegal or unconstitutional, this case has been thrown out of the court of public opinion.

In contrast to sanctimonious commentators grandstanding about the
president's "evil," the American people, who probably have one or two sexual secrets themselves, have grasped the larger question. Which is a greater threat to America -- a president who can't keep his pants zipped and can't tell the truth about it, or a systematic effort by an obsessed prosecutor and rabid Congress to drive him out of office by whatever means possible, and thereby overturn two national elections in the process? The punditocracy's astonished collective head-shaking notwithstanding, the answer isn't complicated. It remains to be seen whether, on behalf of the public, someone asks the question Thursday of Judge Starr, in his race against his demons.

By Steve Erickson

Steve Erickson's new novel, "The Sea Came in at Midnight," will be published next spring by Bard/Avon.

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