Show trials


THE PEOPLE ruined so far by the Simpson trial must be numbered in battalions.

I saw one the other day while passing the kitchen TV set. He was a tow-truck driver. He'd had the bad luck to be working when the cops ordered the famous white Bronco towed. He had the bad judgment to pocket some receipts left in the Bronco, apparently thinking they might become valuable collector's items.

He failed to ponder that a celebrity case swarming with the nightmare hordes of justice would leave no receipt unpursued, so was caught. He had worked many years for that towing company, he said. And now, fired.

Another poor devil ruined for justice. How many others? Hardly a witness has escaped with character unsmeared, professional reputation untattered or dignity left in tact. This spectacle has solidified my determination, should I ever be called as a witness in any trial, to skip the country and take up residence in Brazil.

The ruining of people is one of the grimmer aspects of these popular show trials, but even grimmer is the souring of the national spirit.

The depth of public cynicism about the Simpson case is illustrated in surveys indicating that whether people think O.J. Simpson innocent or guilty depends largely on their race. Great, isn't it? Whatever the result of this circus, the country's already bad racial problem can only be made worse.

Convict O.J. Simpson, and black America will be reassured that he is the victim of white racism. Find him not guilty, and white America will be reassured that a black man tried by a jury on which blacks are represented can get away with murder.

As if California vs. Simpson weren't poison enough, the Republicans in Congress have finally opened two committee investigations that amount to free-swinging show trials of President Clinton.

One is aimed at cutting up the president by pursuing the so-called Whitewater affair. The other seeks to solidify the Republican grip on the gun lobby by exploiting the Waco disaster to amplify accusations that the FBI and the Treasury Department's Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents are fascistic forces of government oppression.

Both these shows are part of the long Republican campaign to undo the election of 1992. The Republican line from this administration's very beginning has been not just that Bill Clinton simply won't do, but also that he was not justly entitled to the White House.

Ross Perot's voters, by denying a majority to both Democrat and Republican, encouraged the GOP to question the legitimacy of Clinton's presidency. "No mandate" is the usual way of attacking presidents without majorities, and this is the line Republicans have taken from the start.

The refusal of the losing party to accept a presidential election result long enough to grant the country a little relief from the poisons of politics is unusual, but this time the Republicans never relented.

We have had an endless presidential campaign for two years past, with another year and a half to look forward to. The Whitewater business has been around almost as long as the charges that the president's taste in women ran to bimbos and that he was an unmanly draft-dodger in the Vietnam years.

Notice I avoid explaining what "the Whitewater business" is about. This is because, after saying it involved a losing real-estate investment by the Clintons before he became president, I find the thing too incomprehensible to summarize in fewer than 5,000 words.

This of course is the beautiful part from a Republican viewpoint. If something is inexplicable except to lawyers, a politician commanding a noisy newsmaker committee -- with plenty of lawyers to make it even more confusing -- can create the impression that something very sinister indeed went on.

In short, more sourness ahead. Prepare to feel even more depressed about the state of the country. Keeping you in sour spirits is thought to be good politics these days.

The Waco affair also aims at Bill Clinton's eventual overthrow by highlighting his Justice Department's apparently bad management of the misbegotten FBI raid that killed so many. The dark side of this show, however, may be the spectacle of Republicans encouraging the paranoid militias' hatred of federal law enforcers.

Russell Baker is a New York Times columnist.

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