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The Grand Inquisitor

II. Protector of the Law

How much legal sense does the Starr Report make? On his allegations of abuse of power - which hold that Clinton was acting impeachably when he appealed his claims of executive privilege all the way to the Supreme Court -Starr has overreached wildly. His allegations of obstruction of justice are more well founded than that, but in many particulars surprisingly shaky. As Lewinsky tells it, it was she, not the president, who first thought of asking Vernon Jordan for help in getting a job, and she, not the president, who first suggested returning his gifts.

Perjury's another story. No matter how Clinton attorney David Kendall may parse the president's answers, Bill Clinton certainly wasn't telling the truth in the Jones deposition, and his characterization of that deposition before the Grand Jury last month left no hair unsplit. (Given two more weeks in the media spotlight, Kendall and Starr could by themselves destroy all respect for law in this land for generations to come.) But to argue that lying to cover up an illicit affair, and then lying to deny that one was lying, constitute high crimes and misdemeanors is to misconstrue the meaning of impeachment - and to dismiss almost cavalierly the verdict that the citizenry renders when it elects a president.

In 1974, when the House Judiciary Committee was investigating Watergate, it considered looking into allegations that Richard Nixon had cheated on his taxes. In the recollection of Elizabeth Holtzman, then a member of the committee, later the district attorney of Brooklyn, the committee decided not to pursue that avenue of inquiry. Tax evasion was a crime, she and her colleagues reasoned, but did not rise to the level of an impeachable offense. Perjury is a crime, too - but I suspect there are fewer people doing time for perjury than there are for tax evasion. I'm not sure there are very many people at all doing time right now for lying about an affair.

III. Tribune of the People

The Starr Report has intensified people's feelings about Bill Clinton's presidency, but it has not changed them. Poll after poll shows that the right considers Clinton a usurper who must go - more or less what the right has always felt. Poll after poll shows that virtually everyone else views the allegations as insufficient grounds to remove Clinton from office, and the evidence that Starr has now produced has altered that view hardly at all.

With the Starr Report now littering the land, it's not clear what exactly the impeachment process is supposed to resolve. Evidence painting the president's conduct in the most damning light possible is already on the table. Clinton critic Charles Canady, a Florida Republican who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, has inspected the boxes of evidence that Starr also sent over and reported back to the Washington Post that, "[M]ost of the story has been told in the report. I don't think any shocking revelations are going to come out of any other source."

They're certainly not going to come out of Starr's Whitewater investigation, which doesn't even rate a passing mention in his brief for impeachment. Starr has spent four years and $40 million in a vain search for Clinton's Whitewater transgressions, while the press, according to this week's Newsweek, has produced an astonishing 80,000 Whitewater stories during this time - tales, not necessarily told by idiots, but certainly full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.

The very idea of an evidentiary phase of the impeachment process, then, seems utterly redundant. For now, however, Congressional Democrats lack the standing and the votes to move either to drop the matter or - more appropriately - to pass a censure motion, which could include some fines the president would have to pay. For their part, the Republicans favor neither censure, which is too quick, nor impeachment, which if carried too far would lead to a Gore presidency. They favor Perpetuating the Crisis.

The Perpetual Crisis, of course, enables the GOP to commit all kinds of mischief out of the public eye, and oppose popular Democratic programs without paying a price. On Thursday of last week - the day between the Starr Report's delivery to Capitol Hill and its release - Senate Republicans killed campaign finance reform for the year. The battles around campaign finance reform had been front-page material for many months, but buried under the Lewinsky scandal, the account of its death was carried on page 14 of The New York Times and page 28 of the L.A. Times. If that's a portent of the press coverage that will be given to non-Lewinsky issues on the campaign trail over the next two months - and it is - it's going to be all but impossible for Democratic candidates to connect with their voters.

Still, the Democrats do have one option if election day looms and the campaign season remains an endless rehashing of All Things Lewinsky. They could make the following October Surmise: the voters are fed up with this thing. We will attack the Republicans (and the media, too, if we have the guts) for stretching it out and ignoring the public's business. A vote for us is a vote for wrapping it up.

Besides, the Starr Report may have handed the Democrats something they've hitherto lacked in this campaign year: a cause around which to mobilize their base. Kenneth Starr has now taken center-stage in the Democrats' demonology; he is the New Newtster, the man you can repudiate by voting Democratic. In the politics of '98, Clinton will get the Republicans to the polls; Starr may do the same for the Democrats.

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