The Magazine

WHITE HOUSE FEARS

Jan 18, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 17 • By TUCKER CARLSON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts



LAST WEEK, WHITE HOUSE press secretary Joe Lockhart explained why Bill Clinton beings the Senate impeachment trail at a profound disadvantage. The case that Republicans will bring against the president, Lockhart told the New York Times, is based on "the most prejudicial record that could possibly exist" -- a record that is mysterious in origin, "untested and not cross-examined," a record from which "we know exculpatory information was left out." No sane defendant would choose to defend himself self against such incomplete and misleading evidence in court, Lockhart implied. Nevertheless, he said, "We are accepting that record."


Does the White House have a death wish? Why would the president's lawyers allow biased and incomplete evidence against their client to stand unchallenged? Because the alternative is worse. Challenging the facts of Ken Starr's case would require new testimony, and there is nothing the White House wants less than a Senate trial with witnesses.


All of which puts Clinton partisans in a tough position. It's hard to argue simultaneously that Starr's evidence is misleading and that no witnesses should be called to correct it, though the president's defenders have done their best. I don't think witnesses should be called, James Carville explained last week, because, "as a human being, I don't want to see Betty Currie have to testify." Hours later, Carville's former partner, Paul Begala, made the same point in strikingly similar language. "As a human being," Begala said, "I'd rather do almost anything than see Betty Currie dragged through this stuff one more time."


Apparently, someone in the White House communications office realized that Betty Currie's hurt feelings didn't make for a very effective talking point, because within a short time a new argument appeared: Calling witnesses would make for a long trial -- months and months, at minimum -- and a long trial hurts everybody. The White House would be paralyzed for the duration. The Supreme Court, adrift without the chief justice, would cease to hear cases. The American people would miss out on all sorts of vital education and health care initiatives. Only Republicans would welcome the gridlock, and they, too, would suffer in the end, punished by angry voters two years from now.


It's grim scenario, and not all of it is spin. Witnesses would certainly make the trial longer. A long trial might indeed irritate the public and hurt the Republican party in the 2000 elections. The White House, meanwhile, will be in a poor position to haggle over legislation while the trial is in progress. "To the extent that Bill Clinton is held hostage to the Democratic party during the impeachment process," says someone who frequently advises the administration, "he cannot negotiate as easily with the Republicans on something as sensitive as Social Security. He needs to keep his labor base."


All of this is true, but there are other reasons the president's advisers fear a parade of witnesses at trial. For one thing, the longer a trial continues, the more opportunities the president will have to sabotage his own good fortune. There is the possibility that Clinton will have another unseemly, and televised, outburst of smugness -- a repeat of what one adviser calls "the bongo-beating, cigar-chomping thing" -- and alienate Senate Democrats in the process. There is also the chance that yet another scandal will break before the president has been acquitted. Rumors that Clinton has an illegitimate teenage child by a Little Rock prostitute have been floating around Washington for weeks (and around Arkansas for years). On its face, the story seems implausible. On the other hand, no one around Clinton is categorically denying it. "I have no idea whether it's true or not," says Lanny Davis, formerly of the White House counsel's office. "I don't think people want to think about it. It's like we're all afraid to breathe when the topic is raised."