WASHINGTON -- Having Al D'Amato probe your ethics is like having a blindfolded fortune teller read your palm: How much can you really trust the result?
It is not known, for instance, whether Senator D'Amato, Republican from New York, would actually recognize an ethical lapse if he came across one.
He certainly has never found one in his own oft-questioned behavior.
But as chairman of something called the Senate Special Committee on Whitewater, D'Amato is now in charge of finding out, as he once put it, "What did the president know and when did Hillary tell him?"
That was the old Al D'Amato, however, the kick-to-the-kneecap, knee-in-groin Al D'Amato.
Today we have the new Al D'Amato, the Al D'Amato who wants to be known as the one thing he has never been called before: A statesman.
"We intend to conduct fair, impartial and thorough hearings," D'Amato somberly intoned yesterday.
D'Amato was speaking from a room festooned with red velvet and clad in white marble, making it look more like a Las Vegas ladies' room than a Senate hearing room. (One difference: Las Vegas ladies' rooms do not have sky boxes. Al D'Amato's hearing room does.)
His first task, D'Amato said, was to find out "what happened in [deputy White House counsel] Vince Foster's office on the night of July 20, 1993," the night Foster killed himself.
Three people entered the office that night: White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum; Hillary Clinton's chief of staff, Maggie Williams; and Patsy Thomasson, director of the Office of Administration.
Which is why D'Amato called Web Hubbell as his first witness.
Huh? Why call a guy who wasn't there that night?
I asked Sen. Paul Sarbanes, Democrat of Maryland and the ranking minority member of the committee, that very question.
A smile played upon Sarbanes' lips. "I assume some people think he's an interesting witness," Sarbanes said.
I'll translate for you: Web Hubbell, Bill Clinton's pal and former associate attorney general, is now a convicted felon. In just a few weeks he's going to be sent to the slammer for bilking his law firm and cheating on his income taxes.
And if D'Amato could have brought Hubbell before the TV cameras in prison stripes and with an iron ball chained to his foot, he would have done so.
Instead, Hubbell showed up in a blue suit and answered all questions fully and politely. (So maybe he'll be assigned to the laundry instead of the rock pile.)
Which is why the Republicans had to look elsewhere for their drama: Enter Vince Foster's briefcase.
After Foster's suicide, Bernie Nussbaum searches the briefcase for a note and says there is no note inside. Then, four days later, 27 pieces of a torn-up note are found in the briefcase.
L Impossible! the Republicans cry. Beyond the laws of physics!
Which is why Alaska Republican Frank Murkowski produced the actual briefcase and flourished it for photographers yesterday in one of the most dramatic audio-visual moments since Joe McCarthy brandished a piece of paper containing, he claimed, the names of known Communists within the State Department.
Murkowski even went to the trouble of tearing up a note into 27 pieces and stuffing them into the briefcase.
"As anyone can plainly see, it is difficult not to see the 27 pieces of paper!" Murkowski said.
Sarbanes immediately cried foul. Why had the Democrats not been given a chance to fool around with the briefcase, too?
A mistake, D'Amato said. Won't happen again.
Then Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry took the briefcase and demonstrated that when you stood it up on the floor, which Kerry says Nussbaum did the night of the suicide, the pieces of paper are not readily visible.
This went back and forth for a while, and then it was 1:15 p.m. and everyone agreed to call it a day.
Before the committee recessed, however, Washington Democrat Patty Murray reminded everyone of what Vince Foster said of Washington, D.C., shortly before his death: "Here, ruining people is considered sport."
He got that wrong, of course.
Here ruining people is all in a day's work.