FEBRUARY 21, 1997
The NewsHour's regular pundits, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot, discuss the dramatic about-face of special Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr and campaign finance reform.
JIM LEHRER: Now to Shields & Gigot for some analysis of the Starr announcement and other political stories of the week. Thatís syndicated columnist Mark Shields, Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot. Paul, the man said, I made a mistake. How do you read this?
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available.
A RealAudio recording of segments from Kenneth Starr's press conference is available.
February 18, 1997:
Margaret Warner discusses Kenneth Starr's decision to leave the Independent Counsel position.
May 29, 1996:
Shields and Gigot discuss the convictions of Jim Guy Tucker and Jim and Susan McDougal.
April 23, 1996:
Jim Lehrer leads a discussion of Kenneth Starr's possible conflicts of interests.
Browse the Online NewsHour's coverage of Whitewater.
Browse past segments of Shields and Gigot.
PAUL GIGOT, Wall Street Journal: Well, that rare thing in Washington and in journalism, I might add, admitting a mistake, and I think he had made one. He had been put, I think, in a kind of no-manís land of his own creation when he said he was going to stay until August and then step down. You build these cases like this from the bottom up. And heís had prosecutions of the McDougals, for example. And you try to get those witnesses to flip, in the words of prosecutors, to tell what they know. Youíve had a lot of witnesses in this case. Susan McDougal has been in jail for six months because she wonít cooperate. Web Hubble has said heís not going to cooperate. Heís already served a jail term, and he was saying--
JIM LEHRER: James McDougal is cooperating.
PAUL GIGOT: James McDougal is now cooperating. You have a situation where he was sending a message to those witnesses, "Hold on till August, itís over," to batten down the hatches, and he was undermining his own probe and I think undermining his own reputation, which has been stellar for his stick-to-itiveness and credibility, and I think his friends said, look, Ken, you have made a mistake, and youíre going to have to do one of two things. Youíre going to have to change your mind and stick it out, or youíre going to have to resign right now and turn the probe over to somebody else who will do it full-time.
JIM LEHRER: Some of his enemies had some things to say about all this too, did they not?
MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I mean, the conservatives who had been his stoutest defenders in the past three days have been all over him like paint on a wall, Jim. And, I think, there was a sense at some level that Bill Clinton had won twice, and a certain element in the conservative community in this country never accepted the legitimacy of Clintonís victories, and this guy was going to be the guy that undid it.
JIM LEHRER: Kenneth Starr.
MARK SHIELDS: Kenneth Starr was. There was a similar feeling, quite frankly, on the part of some liberals after Ronald Reaganís two victories that Iran-Contra was going to route him from office, and de-legitimize his landslides. I think, though, it was refreshing to hear somebody stand up there in Washington or anyplace else in America and say, hey, I made a mistake.
JIM LEHRER: I blew it. I blew it.
MARK SHIELDS: I have to say this about Ken Starr: At every turn in the road he has never seemed to grasp that he is flying at a different altitude professionally, Jim, when heís the independent counsel investigating allegations criminal against the President of the United States. That just changes everything. I mean, heís not showing a tin ear. Heís showing a brass ear. I mean, whether it was pleading a case for a tobacco company against the administration, whether it was going to the chief polemicist self-styled scourge of Bill Clinton, Pat Robertson to his law school, I mean, he time and again did things that hurt his own investigation and compromised, I think, his own professional reputation.
And I think Paul is right when he sent that message. The announcement wasnít even made by him. It was made by Pepperdine. I mean, unfortunate in a public relations sense, Pepperdine isnít even in Los Angeles; itís in Malibu. And that kind of--thereís a guy going to Malibu to get--so I just think, you know, today was a recouping, no question about it.
JIM LEHRER: Do you see the same brass ear on Kenneth Starr?
PAUL GIGOT: He, I think heís never quite grasped that he was jumping into the Amazon with a bunch of piranhas, frankly, when he was getting into something this big, because when you are investigating charges against a sitting President, the stakes donít get any higher than that.
JIM LEHRER: Thereís no other--other analysis done on that--
PAUL GIGOT: And if you know Ken Starr, I mean, this charge that James Carville, the White Houseís--the Presidentís adviser and frankly front man in this attack on--these attacks on Starr--says that heís a rabid partisan--Ken Starr knows that thatís not the problem at all. He is sort of a philosopher king type. I mean, he views himself as somebody who could sit on the Supreme Court, and he has that sense of judiciousness.
And I donít think he understood that this was going to have to be a full-time job. He shouldnít have done the things that Mark said, and this was--people were going to use any mistake he made, any little thing he did. If he jaywalked, that was going to be used against him. And I donít think he realized that thatís the kind of game he was playing here.
JIM LEHRER: What about the tea leaves, what do the tea leaves--how do they read to you on whether or not--I mean, the fact of the matter is, he says he made a mistake, but he did say a couple of days ago, or Pepperdine said and he confirmed that he was going to have this things wrapped up for him August 1st, and that still remains their kind of hanging out there. He talked about, no, no, no, he didnít mean to send any messages. Do you read a message there, still there?
MARK SHIELDS: I think certainly there was so much premature, the uncorking of champagne at Clinton headquarters, but I do think it does suggest, Jim, that theyíre not in for the long siege where criminal indictment and prosecution against the President and the First Lady, that certain--I mean, because thereís no way in the world that--
JIM LEHRER: Do you read that the same way, that there may be some awful things still to come for the Clintons and some of their folks, but if he was thinking about leaving on August 1st, he wasnít going after Mrs. Clinton or the President?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, I donít think heís--never was going to go after the President. I donít think you can constitutionally indict a President. Thereís some debate about that, but I think heís always going to turn the Presidentís stuff, part of this over to the Congress and say, do with it what you will. The First Lady--I think it sends a clear signal the First Lady will not be indicted unless there is more evidence turned over, or somebody else decides to flip and testify against her. I donít think you can say the same thing, though, for some of the other people involved in Filegate yet, or even some of the Arkansas--I think thatís--
JIM LEHRER: But how did you read what--I watched it live, and I just saw our clip again--Kenneth Starr was saying very clearly the original mandate, which was the McDougals and President and Mrs. Clinton in Arkansas--am I reading that--I mean, what is he saying? That doesnít mean he has to stay for Filegate to be resolved and for some of these other things to be resolved.
MARK SHIELDS: I think you could come away certainly with that as a fair conclusion, I mean, that he was looking upon his chapter of this, this whole book. Thereís just one other thing--
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
MARK SHIELDS: Paulís point about flipping, heís absolutely right, but in defense of Susan McDougal, who doesnít need as a defense witness, I mean, she insisted--I mean, it isnít a question of she has information which sheís not revealing--she simply insisted that--that what her husband is maintaining is not true. I mean, so it isnít a question that--
JIM LEHRER: Sheís also attacked--sheís also attacked some of Starrís folks, saying theyíre trying to get the President, and sheís not going to be a party to that. Now, the question was asked at the news conference about campaign financing, the new scandals, that that caused stormy changes--and this week alone thereís been all this stuff about campaign financing, the President went to a big fund-raiser for the Senate--the Democratic Senate thing, the Republicans spent two days in Palm Beach, and business as usual.
PAUL GIGOT: Well, Jim, the only link between all of that and the Starr probe is the liberal payment, or what has been reported as the liberal group fund-raiser payment to Web Hubble. Thatís the only link. Ken Starr is not doing any of the other campaign finance.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. I was using that as a rather tortured segue to the campaign financing. Okay?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, business as usual; until we get a different system, this is the rules under which people play, and raising money per se is not what this is about. A lot of the campaign scandal is about both sides have raised money for years and years under the system. What happened--what seems to have happened in 1996 and what all the news reports are going out is that the rules werenít obeyed; they were violated. The standards just collapsed. What Trent Lott did when raising money in Florida and what the President did in raising money I think it was in New York, I donít think thereís anything wrong with that. Thatís the way our system works.
JIM LEHRER: Mark.
MARK SHIELDS: I dissent. I think there was one big one of this week. It was Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, whoís going to be chairing the hearings in the Senate on campaign finance, on the whole question of the Clinton campaign in 1996. Understand who is enemies are. His enemies are the Democrats and the Republicans. All right. The Democrats--the Republicans on Capitol Hill want all the investigation to center on the 1996 Clinton campaign. The Democrats donít object to that and maybe throw in the 1992 Bush campaign too, the 1996 Dole campaign. Nobody wants him to look at Congress. What Trent Lott did this week, and if thereís a--Jerry McGuire has been nominated for the Academy Award, Tom Cruise and--who has a line in it--"Show me the money."
JIM LEHRER: And Gigot has used that line a couple of--
MARK SHIELDS: It has entered the language. Iíll tell you this--
PAUL GIGOT: I made it a cliche.
MARK SHIELDS: Iíll tell you this. "Itís the American way" is going to enter the language the same way. Trent Lott will live to regret that. The Senate Majority Leader, they ask him, youíve got the Breakers Hotel, a five-star, exclusive place in Palm Beach; you bring in the big rollers, $100,000; youíve got Clinton on the run.
JIM LEHRER: Letís explain what thatís all about. A hundred people there, you have to give $100,000 or more, now up to $175,000 over the last so many years in order to be there. Okay.
MARK SHIELDS: The invitation was come in, meet foreign dignitaries.
PAUL GIGOT: I didnít know you had those Republican--
MARK SHIELDS: Meet foreign dignitaries, rub elbows, have total access to the policy makers. I mean, it sounds a little bit like, you know, a Starbuckís coffee raiser at the White House, you know.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
MARK SHIELDS: I think it was Starbuckís.
JIM LEHRER: Thatís when Lott said--he was asked--he said itís the American way. What do you think about that, Paul?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, I mean, I think that was--talk about a political tin ear, I mean--but the right to petition your government is your right, and to do that through campaign contributions--I mean, this city, Washington and the politicians takes, you know, all this power and all this money, and then it wants to say to the people that it has that power and takes it from, hey, we donít want you to petition us; we donít want you to be able to influence that through campaign contributions. Well, thatís not right. And thereís a philosophical dispute between the parties and between--
JIM LEHRER: Between two of you.
PAUL GIGOT: On this question. But thatís where the gulf is. I disagree with Mark in one sense about the Democratic strategy here. The Democratic strategy is not just to go after Ď92, although they would like to do that. They want to go after the system because if you go after the system--
MARK SHIELDS: I wish they did.
PAUL GIGOT: --then--
JIM LEHRER: Does anybody really go after the system?
MARK SHIELDS: Fred Thompson. Thatís why I say Fred Thompsonís the big winner. Fred Thompson stands, Jim, at the same position, in my judgment, historically. He has--heís captain of his own ship for 2000. He has an issue that I think is going to break and break big on this whole question of money and politics, to how dominant and influenced it is. He has the credentials because he has been that small band of Republicans who wanted to change it, and--
JIM LEHRER: Itís a much bigger issue out in the country than it is in Washington.
PAUL GIGOT: I donít agree with that.
JIM LEHRER: You donít agree with that?
PAUL GIGOT: No, I donít. I think itís well down the list.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. All right. I was wrong.
PAUL GIGOT: You might be right.
JIM LEHRER: Weíll see.
MARK SHIELDS: Stick to your guns.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Thanks, Mark. Good-bye.