US yawns as zealous Starr goes too far

Click to follow
The Independent Online
ALL SUMMER Washington has been asking itself a question: what if Congress moves to impeach the President? For some, it was asked in gleeful tones, a foretaste of the joy that would come with the removal of "Slick Willy". For others, it was a fearful idea, threatening the very foundations of the Republic.

But when the answer came, it was not what anyone had expected. It was, in fact another question, one of those elliptical Buddhist riddles: what is the sound of one hand clapping? Unlike the Watergate hearings, which convulsed the city for weeks, the Congressional hearings that started on Thursday had no echoes, and took place in a political vacuum. Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel leading the investigation into Mr Clinton, has assembled his case, but the national audience for it has moved away.

There was certainly plenty of drama down at the Rayburn building, the mock classical monolith where the Judiciary Committee met to quiz Mr Starr. The white marble-floored corridors echoed with noise and activity as red- faced reporters scrambled to get in, policemen pushed them back and the curious public crammed the overflow room where the hearing was replayed on television. Down the corridor television reporters gravely passed judgement on the day's events.

But at the White House, business went on as normal. The cars went to and fro from West Executive Avenue, taking generals and ambassadors to the West Wing. Men in braces scurried in and out of the Situation Room. Staff from the National Security Council wandered down for lunch in the Old Executive Office Building, where Thanksgiving turkey was on offer. There was no sense of panic, nor even of interest in what was going on up the road. The President was in Tokyo. Mr Starr might as well have been there, too, for all the interest most of the city took in him.

The elections on 3 November seemed to show that the public has had enough of impeachment. From the inside, the hearings were a furious conflict, pitting rival concepts of justice, politics and the truth. It was only the third time that Congress has threatened to remove a sitting president. But from the outside it seemed curiously irrelevant.

Henry Hyde, the silver-haired chairman from Chicago, fought to keep order, but the proceedings frequently almost escaped his grasp as the committee divided sharply on partisan lines. He tried to keep things on track with a fine discourse on justice and the Republic that was intended to set the stage for "Judge Starr", as he called him. John Conyers, the top Democrat on the committee, wore his perennial look of seen-it-all- before. (He has: he is the only remaining member from the days of the Watergate hearing.) But he was on fiery form with a virulent denunciation of "Kenneth Double-U Starr" whom he called a "federally paid sex policeman".

Sitting on his briefcase to make himself appear taller, Mr Starr took two hours and 15 minutes to set out his case with meticulous care in his nasal monotone. The Republicans praised him at every turn. But the Democrats and David Kendall, Mr Clinton's lawyer, questioned his judgement, his handling of the case and his investigators' handling of witnesses. They hammered home their belief that he had turned his investigation into a crusade, an attempt to bring down the President no matter what. Sometimes it was hard to avoid the impression that it was Mr Starr, not the President, who was on trial.

The only echo from the hearings came the next day, and seemed to suggest that it is, indeed, Mr Starr who is under pressure. On Friday Sam Dash, Mr Starr's ethical advisor, resigned, apparently because he believed the independent counsel had gone too far in pressing the case, rather than just reporting the facts. "You have violated your obligations under the Independent Counsel statute and have unlawfully intruded on the power of impeachment," he said, charging Mr Starr with acting as "an aggressive advocate for the proposition that the evidence in your referral demonstrates that the President committed impeachable offences".

Mr Dash is a significant figure in Washington. A veteran lawyer and a leading light at the influential Georgetown University Law Centre, he was Democratic counsel to the committee which investigated Watergate. Many of his colleagues expected him to go long ago, but he apparently felt it would be more honest to wait until after the hearings. He may also have been concerned about Mr Starr's plans for the future. He can continue his work pursuing the President, his staff and colleagues for the rest of the administration - and beyond.

More investigations and more hearings will not gain the Republicans any more fans; most Americans want to see the matter brought to a close, and soon.