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Pain in the Forecast

The House Judiciary Committee today takes up the solemn constitutional burden of considering whether to impeach a president, convening in an atmosphere already saturated with partisanship and recriminations.

Chairman Henry J. Hyde’s earlier hope that at least some of the committee’s 16 Democrats would join with its 21 Republicans to approve one or more articles of impeachment has faded without a trace. What had been planned as brief and to-the-point hearings now threaten to stretch out for weeks. Some committee Republicans want to broaden the inquiry beyond the allegations raised by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. More extensive hearings would see Democrats demanding as a matter of fairness that a perhaps long list of witnesses of their choosing also be summoned. To paraphrase Thomas Hobbes, hearings that boded to be nasty, brutish and short could become nasty, brutish and long.

Democrats are eager to cross-examine Starr, particularly about the methods he used to gather evidence against President Clinton. There are in fact questions of public interest concerning Starr’s tactics and whether he and his investigators crossed the ethical boundaries set by the Justice Department for such inquiries.

For example, was Monica S. Lewinsky, Starr’s key witness in trying to show that Clinton lied and obstructed justice, unfairly deprived of her right to counsel and otherwise coerced when she was first questioned last January? Did Starr continue encouraging Linda Tripp to secretly record conversations with Lewinsky even though he knew such recordings are illegal under Maryland law? What was Starr’s connection--and Tripp’s--with lawyers for Paula Jones, whose sexual harassment suit against Clinton elicited the Lewinsky deposition that became the falling rock that set off an avalanche of allegations against him?

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Possible ethical breaches by the independent counsel’s office of course in no way excuse Clinton’s wanton behavior with Lewinsky, and the possibly illegal actions flowing from that relationship. The Lewinsky-Tripp audiotapes released this week underscore more sharply than the earlier released transcripts two especially ugly facts in this scandal. One is how despicably Clinton behaved when he let himself lust after a foolishly eager and compliant White House intern who so obviously had the self-deluding mind-set of an infatuated adolescent. The other is how Tripp, who could have taught Lady Macbeth a thing or two, so insidiously manipulated and encouraged her purported friend as she led her ever deeper into a self-incriminating trap.

Yes, this is all familiar stuff--even the leaked text of Starr’s opening statement repeats his earlier accusations--but it’s going to be rehashed nonetheless. Given the public’s strongly expressed wish to have this whole matter over and done with, it will be interesting to see how much attention is paid to the planned gavel-to-gavel coverage of the committee’s hearings. Chairman Hyde (R-Ill.) originally and laudably said he intended to hold quick, decorous and focused hearings. Right now, unhappily, none of these objectives seem realizable. We may have seen this movie before, but like it or not we’re going to have to sit through it again.


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