TOPICS > Politics

Assessing the Case

January 15, 1999 at 12:00 AM EST
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PHIL PONCE: We get reaction from NewsHour regular David Gergen, editor-at-large of U.S. News & World Report; Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, executive director of the Black Leadership Forum; and George Terwilliger, a former deputy attorney general under President Bush.

PHIL PONCE: Mr. Terwilliger, a couple of big questions: Number One, how good of a job did the House Managers do on the articles of impeachment, and Number Two, the question of how compelling a case they made and the need for witnesses. First, the issue of the charges, themselves, obstruction of justice and perjury, how well did they do on that?

GEORGE TERWILLIGER: I think they did well in explaining more than one would get by reading the press accounts and perhaps a cursory reading of the Starr Report and that sort of thing. I think what they were trying to do was get the Senators to focus on a sequence of events and through that sequence of events prove the President’s intent. Now, as one of the House Managers noted today, their job really – the threshold they must reach, is not to prove that a criminal violation occurred. There’s a different issue. And one of the reasons -

PHIL PONCE: That issue being?

GEORGE TERWILLIGER: Well, in my mind, that issue is whether or not the President comported himself in such a way as he’s proved himself to be unfit to hold the office that he now has, rather than the more narrow question of did he do a number of things that the facts show are criminal violations. One of the reasons witnesses may be necessary and well advised is that we don’t have a situation here that at the end of the trial a judge will go to a jury and say here is the law that you must apply to reach a judgment in this case. Rather, we have 100 individuals who will decide for themselves what the threshold of conviction is. Therefore, if you’re presenting evidence and advocating the position that the President should be removed, you want to bring more evidence to bear, rather than less, on the salient facts, and you also want to bring that evidence to bear in the context of the issues that are now framed by the articles of impeachment where when that testimony was taken before by Kenneth Starr’s grand jury, for example, it was focused upon other, more narrow issues.

PHIL PONCE: Ms. Scruggs-Leftwich, are witnesses necessary to get at those issues?

YVONNE SCRUGGS-LEFTWICH: Well, I think I’d like to back up from that question and say that it is clear to a lot of people that the presentations by the managers are not aimed at the Senators; they’re aimed at the viewing public because they’re condescending in the extreme and transparent with regard to using almost tautological approach to build the case for witnesses by constantly repeating two or three concepts in different words, in different relationships to each other, to make people feel that things are so confused and muddled that, my goodness, we must need witnesses to straighten everything out.

PHIL PONCE: On that score, how good a job are they doing in addressing the public?

YVONNE SCRUGGS-LEFTWICH: They are not doing a good job from all the feedback that I am getting. People are clear that this is a group of people coming over from their house, repeating the activities and the assertions that they made in the House. There are some who are saying they are so obsessed with the issue that they can’t see the hyperbole that they’re involved in, that they’re so focused on convincing the public that witnesses would be a good idea that they are not making a case for the articles of impeachment. For example, if they were not clear that the articles of impeachment were addressed by the evidence, then why did they vote on the articles of impeachment? It is certain a mystery to me that they would now be trying to redesign the information and the evidence to fit articles of impeachment that I understand they arrived at by looking at the evidence in the first place. In the second place, it seems to me to be a travesty of justice to take two or three days or twenty-four hours to bring one or two witnesses before an august body like the Senate to make a case that the House of Representatives had plenty of time to make before they voted on the articles of impeachment.

And I cannot imagine that any testimony by anyone at this stage in the game could throw more light on anything that is essentially a sexual problem than Ken Starr’s Report did, than the testimony in the House did, and their deliberation on the articles of impeachment. So to answer your question in a very round about way, no, I don’t think witnesses are necessary, and I think it would be very, very bad for this process and for the American people and the American people tell me – the ones I’m talking with – they don’t want to see witnesses; they don’t want any more of this prurient testimony.

PHIL PONCE: David Gergen.

DAVID GERGEN: Well, I’m not sure I speak to a wide segment of the American people, but my sense is that most Americans aren’t watching, in part, because only public television and CNN are actually carrying this and providing it to people. You know, the networks, to my surprise, have basically taken flight and so that they’re providing a lot of other options, so I think that this – these hearings or this trial is having precious little impact upon the public and it really is a question of changing minds within the Senate and perhaps changing who has the high ground. It does seem to me on the witness question that the Republicans have strengthened their public case for calling witnesses, at least in the next stage, and that is not calling them before the Senate itself but calling them for depositions to see what they may have to say, essentially the Republicans are arguing to the Democrats, look, in order to exonerate the President you must find that the President’s word – you believe the President’s word and not that of several witnesses. Well, before you assume that the President’s word counts more than that of the witnesses, you have the obligation as a matter of fairness to call those witnesses and look them in the eye and listen to their arguments, and at that point, if you still believe the President’s word over theirs, then that’s your right, but you at least ought to call those witnesses, and I think that’s – that argument is obviously making headway with some Senators, such as Sen. Bennett, who was not disposed to have witnesses before.

PHIL PONCE: Mr. Terwilliger, how do you respond to what – we heard Sen. Harkin say that by relying on so much detail, that the House Managers are basically undermining their need for witnesses because they already have a full and ample record?

GEORGE TERWILLIGER: Well, I think that that puts the wrong focus on things. The House Managers’ job, after all, is to be the best advocates that they can for the case for conviction on the articles of impeachment which they have carried forward to the Senate, and that seems to me by the very procedure that the Senate has prescribed to be a two-faced process. This may be their only shot if the Senators do not permit witnesses. If they knew that they were going to be allowed to bring witnesses in, then perhaps they might have tailored the initial part of the presentation differently.

PHIL PONCE: And, Ms. Scruggs-Leftwich, how do you respond to the argument made that unless you look somebody in the eye, unless you see their demeanor, their whole body posture and everything, you can’t really make an informed determination on these charges?

YVONNE SCRUGGS-LEFTWICH: I just think that that’s spurious, and I think that that’s an excuse for extending this exposure of the President and the American public to a lot of discussion of sexual peccadilloes. I must say I was really surprised at the level of detail about the personal relationship between the President and Monica Lewinsky. I really expected that the House Managers would spend much more time on legal matters and talking about issues that are of importance to the Senators than rehashing material, which they, the Senators, have certainly all read. And while I -

PHIL PONCE: You’re saying they got too prurient?

YVONNE SCRUGGS-LEFTWICH: Yes. Well, I think they got too much in detail about sex, especially since they’re insisting this is not a trial about sex; this is a trial about lying. But the lying is about sex, and they – in order to make that point, they constantly have to talk about when the President saw Monica Lewinsky, when Monica Lewinsky got gifts, when she returned them, and this level of detail, which really goes back to the fundamental objection that many of us have to this process that is underway; that it was set up to involve this President in a situation which was almost inescapable for embarrassment and undermining his administration because if you have an affair, you’re certainly going to try to please the person with whom you’re having an affair and to talk, for example, about Vernon Jordan’s efforts to get Monica Lewinsky a job seems to many of us to be elementary. If he’s having an affair with a woman and the woman wants a job, he would try to get her a job. I don’t know what’s surprising about that.

GEORGE TERWILLIGER: Well, I think one thing that has to be clear here is that for the Senate, this is well beyond sex. The question here is, did the President abuse the power of his office for personal advantage, and the fact that what he tried to cover up or obstructed investigation of happen to be sex as opposed to a third-rate burglary doesn’t make any difference. The question is what did he do in trying to hide this particular –

PHIL PONCE: David Gergen, let me get you in on something that happened right at the end, something that was unexpected, and that was Senator Harkin’s objection to the characterization of the Senate as a jury. Why do you think he did that?

DAVID GERGEN: I thought that was a fascinating moment, one of the most interesting we’ve had, and I think he cast some light on it after the adjournment, and he said a few things in the hall to reporters. What’s quite clear is that he was worried that by the Republicans continuing to call the Senators “jurors” they were casting the Senate into a box, and that was that the Senate’s only role is to say did the President commit perjury or did he not, did the President obstruct justice or did he not, and if you find the answer to either one of the is yes, then you have no choice but to convict and remove him from office.

And Tom Harkin was saying “wait a minute, that’s not our role.” Our role is partly that of the jury but it’s also that of the judge; we’re sitting as a court at large, in effect, as judge – Chief Justice Rehnquist recognized, and we have larger responsibilities than simply to find a yes or no answer; we have to decide what’s in the best welfare of the country; we have to decide whether the man is fit to serve, and clearly, Tom Harkin believes that Bill Clinton is eminently fit to serve, and he wants to not be in that box.

Again, these were arguments about each side trying to box the other in, each one trying to achieve an advantage, an argument – partly this has a lot to do with how the public and everyone else will look back upon as ultimately the Republicans want to put the Democrats in a situation where if they vote to exonerate the President, they can say you did it unfairly, you didn’t look at all the evidence, you know, you essentially whitewash this, and the Democrats want to be able to say, look, you know, we had to decide on the larger issues, we voted our conscience on what we think is right for the country.

PHIL PONCE: That’s where we’ll have to leave it. I thank you all very much.