By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photo courtesy AP/Wide World
So now the Senate — by its own assessment the world’s greatest deliberative body — has decided to subpoena witnesses. On Tuesday, it debated the issue behind closed doors — fearing, no doubt, that if it conducted the world’s greatest deliberations in public, the very planet would plotz. On Wednesday, it voted, largely along the world’s greatest party lines, to depose three witnesses.
Not that the House managers held out much hope that the witnesses would say anything new. Monica Lewinsky, they admitted, could for the most part be expected to confirm her earlier testimony. As to presidential friend Vernon Jordan, House manager Asa Hutchinson averred, the prosecution has only one new question up its sleeve: Did Jordan ask Lewinsky to destroy her notes of her conversations with the president?
That’s a most peculiar question, though, to raise in a trial of Bill Clinton, since, even in the immensely unlikely event that Jordan admits he did direct Monica to the shredder, it doesn’t directly implicate the president at all. Last weekend, Ken Starr did the work of congressional Republicans by forcing Lewinsky to meet with them. Now the congressional Republicans propose to do the work of Ken Starr by helping him build a case against Vernon Jordan. But unless the Senate believes that it can remove Jordan from the high office of presidential friend, it’s hard to see how this fits into the impeachment proceeding.
The case for calling presidential aide Sidney Blumenthal seems equally tenuous. Blumenthal already testified twice to the grand jury that on the day the Lewinsky story broke in the press, Clinton told him that Monica was a "stalker" who had fabricated the entire tale. There are now two new lines of questioning to pursue, said House manager James Rogan: Did Clinton tell Blumenthal last summer that he made all this up, and then tell Blumenthal the real story so he could relate it to the grand jury? And did Blumenthal or other White House staffers phone reporters to relay Clinton’s "stalker" story?
Now the Senate has subpoenaed Blumenthal so that he can offer the only possible answer to the first of these queries: "No, duh." (Consider the alternative: Yes, Blumenthal would say, the president confided the real story to me alone, and come to think of it, I may have committed perjury in the grand jury by failing to bring it up.) As to the second question, while a flow chart of White House disinformation to the media may be helpful to political scientists (it could be placed alongside "How a Bill Becomes a Law"), it’s hard to see how it adds to what is already the universal knowledge that Clinton lied to the public.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that Lewinsky must stick to her story or risk the wrath of Ken Starr, despite the certainty that neither Jordan nor Blumenthal will volunteer anything that could further damage Bill Clinton, despite the 2-to-1 public opposition to prolonging the trial, the Republicans have voted to call witnesses.
Which does raise the question of why.
Okay, so there’s the constitutional-responsibility theory, though the Senate’s duty under the Constitution hasn’t changed much since last month, when Trent Lott, right after the House impeachment, suggested that maybe the Senate could skip the trial altogether and just go to a vote. And there’s the right-wing-pressure-on-Republicans theory, which is unquestionably a factor, and the tribal-behavior theory, which says that on the Clinton Question, you gotta hang with your own party.
My own contribution to unraveling the mystery of Republican behavior might be called the "Gambler on a Losing Streak" theory. Like that gambler, the Republicans are in a huge hole. They wagered that releasing the Starr Report would bring them public support, and they lost. They bet that releasing the full videotape of Clinton’s grand-jury testimony would turn the tide in their favor, and they lost. They made the case for impeachment in the House Judiciary Committee, and their ratings slid further. They impeached the president on almost a straight party-line vote, and their approval ratings sank to levels not seen since Benedict Arnold. At each point, they could have just swallowed their losses and walked away from the table. At each point, they decided instead to double their bet in hopes of regaining their political capital on the next roll of the dice, of convincing the American people with this or that new revelation that the president truly deserved to be dumped, or at least that their case wasn’t as partisan and mean-spirited as the public had come to believe.
In the earlier stages of this process, there really was new material to present, even if — as with the Starr Report and the president’s videotaped testimony — it only confirmed what the public already knew and thought about the story. Now, there isn’t even that. In their case to the Senate over the past two weeks, the House managers have simply and endlessly related the same set of facts that the public has known for many months.