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Videotapes apparently sway no one
House Republican prosecutors unleashed their strongest potential weapon against President Clinton yesterday -- Monica Lewinsky, on videotape -- but made no perceptible change in the seemingly inevitable outcome of his impeachment trial.
After a day of viewing video footage of a coolly composed Lewinsky, plus clips of Clinton's friend Vernon Jordan and White House aide Sidney Blumenthal, the Senate remains on track to acquit the president by the end of this week.
Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky praised the House presentation as "very helpful to anybody in the Senate who had an open mind. But all the open minds here are on the Republican side. I think the Democrats have made up their minds" to acquit."
Closing arguments are scheduled for tomorrow afternoon, with a final vote on the articles of impeachment set for no later than noon Friday.
House prosecutors, their case effectively lost, concentrated nearly their entire three-hour presentation on the obstruction-of-justice charge. That charge is expected to draw more votes for conviction than that of perjury, though not enough to force Clinton's removal.
As they offered testimony from three witnesses loyal to the president, the prosecutors described them as pawns of Clinton, the mastermind of the obstruction-of-justice scheme.
Clinton was "the only individual who had the complete picture. He had all the facts, and he did not always share those facts with others," said Rep. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, "until he determines that the time is right to do so."
The House Republicans seemed to be aiming their arguments as much at the public as at the Senate, whose members were able to watch the taped depositions last week. Indeed, the relatively small television monitors on the Senate floor, combined with technical glitches with the sound system in the chamber, made the viewing much easier at home.
Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, an outspoken Clinton defender, called the airing of Lewinsky's testimony a "political facade," part of "a blatant and flagrant partisan effort to demean the president, embarrass the president, humiliate the president, poison the political atmosphere."
For the first time, and probably the last, too, the president's accusers had a box-office lure: More than a year into the sex scandal that bears her name, Lewinsky could finally be seen and heard publicly.
At least in the extended excerpts that were aired, the 25-year-old former White House intern, wearing a dark outfit accented with a string of pearls, came across as a practiced witness who was in control of herself throughout the five-hour deposition, recorded Monday at a Washington hotel.
Republican Rep. James E. Rogan of California portrayed her as the House's star witness, "the one person whose testimony invariably leads to the conclusion that the president of the United States committed perjury and obstructed justice."
Repeatedly, he and other House prosecutors urged the Senate to "listen to Monica Lewinsky."
Clinton's defense lawyers, however, found her equally effective as a defender of the president. And near the end of the day, Republican Rep. Ed Bryant of Tennessee, who had interrogated Lewinsky on behalf of the House, conceded that she remains loyal to Clinton. During her deposition, "where there were things that could be bent [in his favor], she did so," Bryant said.
There were no major revelations -- transcripts made public Friday confirmed reports that no bombshells would be found in the depositions. There were also only glancing references to the sexual nature of the events at the center of the scandal.
Still, the public airing of testimony by Lewinsky and company could have been only embarrassing to Clinton. Those excerpts can now be recycled endlessly on TV as well.
For example, House prosecutors twice showed footage of Jordan's testimony about the "alarming and stunning" question Lewinsky asked him, during a Dec. 19, 1997, meeting in his Washington law office: "whether or not the president at the end of his term would leave the first lady."
Jordan, who seemed far less haughty on tape than the transcript of his testimony might have made him appear, also testified that he questioned Clinton at the White House that evening about whether Clinton had had sexual relations with Lewinsky. Clinton denied it.
"It appears to me that this is an extraordinary question to ask the president of the United States," says Hutchinson, Jordan's questioner.
Perhaps the most contentious arguments by lawyers for both sides concerned a late-night telephone call from Clinton to Lewinsky on Dec. 17, 1997, in which he informed her that her name had appeared on a witness list in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual-misconduct case.
House prosecutors played portions of Lewinsky's testimony about the call. Clinton, she recalled, told her she could always file an affidavit, if she was subpoenaed in the Jones case, and perhaps avoid being deposed. She also testified that during the same call, Clinton reminded her of their "cover story" about their relationship.
"The president said something -- you can always say you were coming to see Betty [Currie, his personal secretary] or bringing me papers," Lewinsky said.
But Clinton's lawyers used that testimony to bolster their argument that Lewinsky's statements about the phone call had undermined the House case.
"The House managers have cleverly snipped here and there in an effort to present their story," said defense attorney Nicole Seligman. "They have distorted. They have omitted. And they have created a profoundly erroneous impression."
The president's lawyers then ran an extended excerpt of Lewinsky's testimony, some 17 minutes in length. Included was the question and answer that followed Lewinsky's recollection about her phone conversation with Clinton concerning their cover story.
"Now was that in conjunction with the affidavit?" she was asked.
"I don't believe so, no," said Lewinsky, who testified that she and Clinton never discussed the contents of her affidavit.
Prosecutors did not play that excerpt, said Seligman, the president's lawyer, because "they don't want you to know Ms. Lewinsky's recollection, which is that the cover stories and the affidavit were not connected in that telephone call."
But House prosecutors, who acknowledged at the outset that their case against Clinton was to a certain extent circumstantial, responded forcefully.
They argued that the senators shouldn't let the arguments of the sophisticated White House legal team blind them to what was going on.
"Where I come from, you call somebody at 2: 30 in the morning, you're up to no good," Rep. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said, to the most prolonged laughter of the day. "Use your common sense. He was up to no good."
With a tone of desperation, Graham pleaded with the Senate not to reach the verdict that seems inevitable.
"Everybody wants this over so bad you can taste it, including me," he said. "But don't leave a taste behind that history cannot stand."
Referring to a heckler who shouted Thursday from the gallery for the Senate to "God Almighty, take the vote and get it over with," Graham urged the senators: "For God's sakes, spend some time to fulfill your constitutional duty, so that we can get it right not for just our political moment but for the future of this nation."
As the votes on the articles of impeachment near, several issues remain.
Senators will decide whether to conduct their deliberations on the articles in public. Proponents of open deliberations, mainly Democrats, do not have the 67 votes they would need to change the rules, which call for the debate to take place behind closed doors.
The largely Democratic effort to craft a toughly worded censure resolution that can receive bipartisan backing also is continuing. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, and Robert F. Bennett, a Utah Republican, have gone through some 20 drafts in their attempt to find language acceptable to most members of both parties.
According to one draft proposal, Clinton would be condemned for giving "false or misleading testimony" and conducting himself in a way that has brought "shame and dishonor" to him and the presidency. The draft resolution makes no mention of Lewinsky but describes the president's relationship with "a subordinate employee" as "shameless, reckless and indefensible."
Action on the proposed resolution could come immediately after the vote on the articles of impeachment, expected late this week. But some Republican senators oppose the idea, and it is not clear a vote will be taken this week on a censure resolution.
Work on a censure resolution continued behind the scenes yesterday, but its prospects remain uncertain.
"I'd say it's a bird without wings right now," said Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Nebraska Democrat who supports censure. "It looks more like a serpent."
The start of yesterday's session was delayed while the Senate observed a moment of silence in memory of R. Scott Bates, 50, the legislative clerk who called the roll during votes taken in the impeachment trial.
The 30-year employee of the Senate was killed Friday night after being struck by a car while crossing a street in suburban Virginia with his wife, who remains hospitalized.