Diamond in the Ruff

The president's lawyer turns impeachment case on its head.

Published January 20, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

WASHINGTON -- From the gallery of the Senate Tuesday, it was clear that the White House is absolutely masterful when it comes to theatrical direction. Chuck Ruff was the perfect antidote to the yapping GOP jackals. Here is this lone man in a wheelchair, a solitary figure in the center of the well, facing the club of 100 demi-judges. Ruff was quiet, reasoned, insistent and believable. When Ruff said the president was not guilty of perjury or obstruction of justice, he didn't raise his voice or repeat himself. This was not oratory; it was a friend talking to you across the fence.

Perhaps it's because he appears to be so innocuous in his physical presence that Ruff can put the knife into the Republicans without coming off as mean and vindictive. How can a man slumped in a wheelchair be mean-spirited? Compare this to the platoon of Republicans who pranced and prattled in the Senate well for three days. For example, Lindsey Graham was folksy in his attempt to demolish Clinton, but it was a forced folksiness, the charm of a practiced politician. Ruff managed to come off as neither a lawyer nor a politician.

Consider the genius of putting Ruff in front of the cameras and the senators and leaving David Kendall, the president's thin-lipped personal counsel, sitting off-camera. Kendall comes off as a professional legal hit man. From a legal standpoint, it might have been better to pair Ruff and Kendall, or Ruff and Gregory Craig. But for pure theater, give the people what they want -- a serious, solitary individual working against the odds. America loves an underdog.

Again, the Republicans seem to have played into Clinton's hand. They asked Clinton to postpone the State of the Union address, seeing as he was in the dock and hardly fit to govern. But Americans seem to want the president to keep doing his job, running around the country, talking about better schools and saving Social Security, with less crime and more jobs. How dumb are these Republicans, anyway? First, it wasn't their call. It's Clinton's decision. Second, Bill loves to speechify, especially about policy, particularly when he can talk at Congress and the nation all at once. The State of the Union is his very favorite speech, for God's sake. How could he not see the delicious irony in giving a speech in which he would talk about all the good things he and Congress are going to do for the American people, knowing that the very Republicans who voted to impeach him will no doubt have to get up on their feet and applaud him? Or -- risk looking even more out of step with the country's wishes than already may be the case.

Another great thing about the State of the Union speech: It can be all talk and no action. The president can list all the good things he's done for the past year, all the more wonderful things he's going to do in the coming year, and he doesn't have to deliver on any of them. Check all the promises he made in last year's speech against the actual accomplishments in the form of laws passed or programs funded. Close to zero, I believe.

It's possible Ruff and Clinton's other lawyers have set a trap of their own on the issue of impeachment-trial witnesses. They've been crying, "Oh, no witnesses. Pleeease, no witnesses." Then when it seems to be forced down their throats, they start talking about bringing up Ken Starr and Linda Tripp. Did somebody mention Mr. Scaife?" I'll go out on a limb and suggest that it could be the Republicans who turn tail on witnesses.

You've got to chalk up this day as a pretty good one for the slickster from Hope.

By Harry Jaffe

Harry Jaffe is a leading journalist covering Washington, DC—its politics, its crime, its heroes and villains. Beyond Washington, Jaffe’s work has been published in Yahoo News, Men’s Health,Harper’s, Esquire, and newspapers from the San Francisco Examiner to the Philadelphia Inquirer. He’s appeared in documentary films, and on television and radio across the country and throughout Europe.

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