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Starr's Tactics Win Sympathy for Clinton

White House scandal: A fake populist is getting the benefits of a populist revolt.

September 24, 1998|ALEXANDER COCKBURN | Alexander Cockburn writes for the Nation and other publications

A Latino storekeeper on New York's lower East Side shook his head in disgust as he watched the president testify to the grand jury. His anger was not at Bill Clinton but at Ken Starr and his team of prosecutors. "It's just like when they get those kids down to the police station, and they ask them the same thing over and over, anything to try and trap them." One poll taken after the broadcast of the president's testimony showed that the approval for Clinton's job performance actually jumped from 59% to 68%, a register of the disgust felt by ordinary Americans--in sharp contrast to the opinion-forming elites--at what Clinton has been forced to go through.

Ordinary people don't like the intrusions into Clinton's personal life. They think his misbehavior in this area is irrelevant to the performance of his job. And increasingly, I suspect, Americans are registering a larger disgust at prosecutorial techniques.

There's a useful parallel to be made here with the last great judicial spectacle, the O.J. Simpson trial. Many whites raged at widespread black support for Simpson and tried to establish a false solidarity with the poor by denouncing "rich man's justice." It didn't wash with blacks, the vast majority of whom had family members, friends or acquaintances mashed in the wheels of the justice system, and who rooted for O.J. because, with his resources, he at least might beat the system that had blighted so many lives.

Ditto with Clinton, with whom blacks in particular overwhelmingly sympathize in his present troubles. Here's the president, the leader of the Free World, and, just as that Latino store owner said, he's being put through the same old wringer. So they're cheering for him, just as blacks cheered for O.J.

This same wringer is bleakly displayed in the grand jury session. The unwarranted release of the videotape, prompted by vehement Republicans (maybe suckered by a White House pretending to dread its broadcast), was an important event. For many years now defense lawyers have fought for release of grand jury testimony, arguing that only raw transcripts would show how prosecutors mischaracterize testimony and draw up indictments on the basis of perversions of statements made behind closed doors.

Clinton's and Monica Lewinsky's testimony entirely ratifies such attacks on grand juries as presently used by prosecutors. Lewinsky, for example, emerged from Starr's report to Congress as scheming and manipulative. On Starr's account, one could almost build a case against her as a shakedown artist. From the actual grand jury transcript, however, a different and far more sympathetic picture of Lewinsky emerges, one that prompted many of the jurors to muster heartfelt expressions of sympathy and support.

Lewinsky told the grand jury several times she was never encouraged to lie about her relationship with Clinton. Starr's report omits these denials and says, deceptively, "Ms. Lewinsky has stated that the president never explicitly told her to lie. Instead, as she explained, they both understood from their conversations that they would continue their pattern of covering up and lying about the relationship."

Nor did Starr reflect in his report on Lewinsky's statement to the grand jury that she'd told "a whole bunch of lies" to Linda Tripp, including that she had told Vernon Jordan that she wouldn't sign an affidavit saying she'd not had sex with Clinton until he, Jordan, got her a job. This directly refutes a core claim of Starr, that the hunt for Lewinsky's job was part of a larger pattern of obstruction of justice, just like the famous "talking points," which was used to form a large part of Starr's leaks and proclamations and which have now been dropped.

A friend of mine who recently served on a grand jury said that the accused always did better if they appeared before them. She found that the only accused whose cases the jurors threw out were those who came to testify. Their physical presence counterbalanced the alleged victim or the cops.

So it turned out with Clinton. There he was, flesh and blood (insofar as video can be flesh and blood), a human being facing the often bizarre innuendoes of Starr's inquisition. Clinton's always been a fake populist, so it's a wonderful irony that he may owe his survival in office to genuine populism expressed in the revolt of public opinion against the hypocrisy and cruelty of the justice system and the hypocritical moralizing of the elites.

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