TOPICS > Politics

Roll the Tape

February 4, 1999 at 12:00 AM EST


MARGARET WARNER: Now, for an assessment of today’s proceedings, we turn to two journalists who have been watching this all day with us: Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant and David Frum, contributing editor to the Weekly Standard. So, Tom, make sense of all this. How do you read what happened today?

TOM OLIPHANT, Boston Globe: I think what it means at the bottom line is that we are now one and a half steps from an actual vote that ends this proceeding. The half step will come on Saturday, which will be an argumentative presentation of what each side thinks these three depositions mean or show. The final step is going to be whether or not they can resolve this issue as a finding of fact cleanly and quickly, which I suspect they can now. So that the vote not to call Ms. Lewinsky to the floor of the Senate means it really is the end game now.

MARGARET WARNER: The end game?

DAVID FRUM, Weekly Standard: I think so. Actually the most important event of the day may well have happened off stage, which is the collapse of the finding of fact proposition. I think just based on telephoning around late today that it really is finished. With that, we are barreling toward a witness list close of the trial. Up or down vote. The president will be acquitted, and the country will have to live with that.

MARGARET WARNER: As Kwame just reported and we all saw today, 25 Republicans joined in saying no live witnesses or no Monica Lewinsky. Why?

TOM OLIPHANT: Well, I think partly — I mean we do know that the videotape that was available to senators privately was not exactly boffo box office. I don’t think more than 25 or 30 senators actually saw it themselves. But I do think that what has happened is that the senate Republicans and the House managers have in an odd way have come around to the same position and that is a belief that the record in this case, all of Ken Starr’s investigation and the way it was amplified somewhat in the House, that this record is enough to sustain a verdict of guilty or not guilty, and so let’s get on with it. And no one ever quite says that. But behind all the gibberish I think is this acknowledgment.

MARGARET WARNER: But, so David, if there is this acknowledgment, what is it the House managers are trying to achieve by having this last videotaped presentation, up to six hours worth on Saturday, what do they think they can gain from this?

DAVID FRUM: I don’t think there is much to be gained. I think they’ve backed themselves in through a series of previous choices to this point where they’re going to have as their grand finale the presentation of their case almost at its weakest with Monica Lewinsky as a not very cooperative witness saying yes, no, I don’t recall –much less forthcoming than she has been, as they said themselves and Mr. Bryant, in earlier rounds of this. But they are committed by previous decisions. Their hope to get a live witness that would be powerful, the failure of that hope has brought them to the point now where what they have is the videotape and some of the weakest testimony.

TOM OLIPHANT: In the meantime, I mean, it’s going to be lovely for those of us on the print side of the news business because the leaking of this material has already begun this evening. I mean, it’s just cascading out of Capitol Hill right now. Each side — I mean you continue to see this case, depending on your choice of metaphor, Rorschach test or the movie “Rushamon” – it just depends on the perspective you bring to it. But there are, I think, 428 pages in all in these three depositions and if there is any meat left by tomorrow morning that hasn’t been leaked, I will be absolutely amazed.

MARGARET WARNER: Because the written transcripts are supposed to be released tomorrow morning, is that right?

DAVID FRUM: That’s right.

MARGARET WARNER: But not the videotape. So each side gets the chance to put their spin on it.

DAVID FRUM: That’s going to be a heavily edited. But I think the Republicans warned everyone as well as they could, this is going to be actually quite an underwhelming presentation of their case. And what is sort of curious about this is that I think it is going to — it’s a way of ending this thing with an whimper, that had they either got the witnesses or just dropped it, argued the case on the record, I think the case is sufficiently convincing, that the country will have to go to this acquittal knowing that the president actually did most of the things the House Republicans said he did.

MARGARET WARNER: But is there no risk at all for the White House or the president in the fact that the American public will finally see — hear Monica Lewinsky speak on tape?

TOM OLIPHANT: Of course there are risks. Now, if you talk to people in the White House, the risks seem to go more to the appearance than to the content of testimony. This is not…

MARGARET WARNER: Explain — what do you mean?

TOM OLIPHANT: Well, in other words, this may not – the canard about a 21-year-old intern may never have been true but this is a young woman, the sordid nature of the relationship can at least be inferred by anyone, I’m told, who sees this videotape. The details of her, Mr. Jordan, Mr. Blumenthal’s testimony can be argued, depending on your point of view. But there is a point of view, of course, held by the House managers and many Senate Republicans that you’ll not only get to hear on Saturday, but you’ll get to see them throw in 20 seconds of supportive video. Now it’s also through you’ll see the other side. But what the White House doesn’t like is that video enhances a presentation like this and clearly it will put it in fairly decent light. It doesn’t change the case, but every minute this proceeding goes on, the White House doesn’t like it, right?

DAVID FRUM: There’s a trap here for both sides. On the human drama of the case, Monica Lewinsky is the president’s victim. On the legal aspect of the case, she’s the president’s co-conspirator. When the Republicans say we’re talking about the law, Monica Lewinsky is villain. When we are talking about the things that the public is thinking about and the Republicans don’t want to talk about, the human drama, Monica Lewinsky is victim. And so when the public sees her, they think victim, not co-conspirator.

TOM OLIPHANT: And keep going on the point because for Mr. Jordan and for Mr. Blumenthal, for the Republicans, and face it, these are bad guys in their reconstruction of the case — the problem when you present the case is that Mr. Jordan and Mr. Blumenthal are very powerful witnesses for the president. So in all three of these situations, you have a case that can be made by inference, the House managers, and a defense that uses the witnesses themselves.

MARGARET WARNER: I want to get back to something you raised right at the beginning which is you said you thought the finding of fact proposal — which we saw Senator Domenici explain part of it — really collapsed today. Why?

DAVID FRUM: The problem with the finding of fact is that you could never assemble a majority for it. To use an analogy, it’s like a water glass and you have to keep it steady. But it’s always tipping. So, it’s either becoming very specific and factual — in which case it becomes the Starr Report — which we’ve already got – or else it becomes very conclusionary and judgmental, but in that case, it becomes a censure, which most Republicans think is probably unconstitutional. There is no way to hold together a majority of liberal Republicans who want a censure and conservative Republicans who would accept at most a second Starr Report into some coherent parliamentary majority. And without it, we barrel on to an acquittal.

TOM OLIPHANT: You could tell the minute that Senator Domenici began reading from this today because it’s really a finding of conclusions, rather than fact. And also it does not address — it never has addressed — the very deep feelings of many conservatives that to do anything other than say convict or not convict violates the intent of the framers and impeachment. And they have never overcome that objection even before you get to the problem of no Democrats yet.

DAVID FRUM: Conservatives are getting used to hearing the White House praise Justice Scalia — now they would have to get used to them praising Robert Bork.

MARGARET WARNER: David and Tom, thank you very much.

DAVID FRUM: Thank you.