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Much Ado About Nothing

Impeachment: Ken Starr's testimony only raised questions about himself and his conduct in this witch hunt

November 20, 1998|BILL PRESS | Bill Press is co-host of CNN's "Crossfire."

Ken Starr came. Ken Starr spoke. Ken Starr bombed.

For Republicans, Thursday was the last hurrah. In desperate attempts to rally the support of the American people for impeaching President Clinton, House Republicans first released the entire, unedited Starr report. Next, boxes of grand jury testimony and backup documents. Then, the videotape of Clinton's grand jury testimony. Finally, the audiotapes of conversations between Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky.

That strategy not only didn't work, it backfired. With each public dump, public support for impeachment actually declined.

So Thursday, Republicans turned to their last best hope: Starr himself. If Starr couldn't breathe new life into the impeachment process, GOP leaders believed, nobody could.

Now we know. Nobody can. Not even Starr.

In his self-serving, holier-than-thou presentation before the Judiciary Committee, Starr was not convincing. He was boring. He read 58 pages with all the passion of an accountant reading tax returns out loud.

And Starr shed no new light on the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. Instead, he methodically recited all the allegations made in his original report, including the ludicrous allegation that not "volunteering" to testify before a grand jury is an impeachable offense. These allegations already are fully known and have been digested and rejected by the American people.

The only new information Starr provided the committee and the public was that his four-year-plus investigation unearthed no criminal activity on the part of the president or the first lady in connection with Whitewater, the Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan case, the White House travel office affair or the FBI file flap. By his own admission before the House Judiciary Committee, Starr's only case against President Clinton is having oral sex with Lewinsky and, like any married man caught in an extramarital affair, doing whatever he could to cover it up. Even lying about it.

These charges simply do not merit the high punishment of impeachment. This is the opinion of some 200 American historians, from the liberal Arthur Schlesinger to the conservative Stephen Ambrose, who signed a petition to that effect. This is the opinion of the overwhelming majority of Americans. And this is the growing opinion of more and more Republicans in Congress, about 20 of whom say they will never vote for impeachment on the House floor.

But if Starr raised no new questions about Clinton's behavior, he did raise a host of questions about his own.

Starr spent at least 30 minutes talking about the Paula Jones case without mentioning that a federal judge had dismissed the case for lack of merit, and without revealing his own connection with the Jones case: that before he became an independent counsel, he volunteered to write a brief on Jones' behalf.

Starr piously insisted he only expanded his investigation into the Lewinsky matter after receiving permission from the attorney general and a special panel of judges, without acknowledging that he failed to inform Janet Reno of his previous work on behalf of Jones, and that he had already encouraged Tripp to continue taping her conversations with Lewinsky before he received that authority.

Starr accused Clinton of obstructing justice simply by appealing a judge's decisions--without noting that he is also, at this very moment, appealing a decision by another federal judge that Starr be held in contempt of court for leaking grand jury information to reporters. Starr preached about the sanctity of the judicial process, without admitting that the whole Monica matter began when his agents detained Lewinsky for nine hours and denied her permission to call her lawyer, in violation of federal law.

Clearly, Republicans made a big mistake by calling Starr to testify. But Starr made an even bigger mistake: agreeing to testify. Because now he has revealed, at last, how partisan and how flawed his investigation has been from the very beginning.

Did Starr violate Lewinsky's constitutional rights? Did Starr abuse his authority? Did Starr lie to the attorney general, to the courts and to Congress? Those are the questions that now must be answered.

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