WASHINGTON -- In sweeping presentations, the chief Democratic and Republican investigators for the House Judiciary Committee presented starkly contrasting pictures of the impeachment case against President Clinton yesterday, relying in part on newly released videotape of Clinton's testimony in the Paula Jones lawsuit.
The Republican counsel, David Schippers, in a nearly three-hour summation, angrily and at times disdainfully charged the president with an "attack upon, and utter disregard for, truth and the rule of law." Schippers said it was his "sorrowful duty" to accuse Clinton of impeachable offenses contained in the impeachment articles.
"This is not about sex or private conduct," Schippers said. "It is about multiple obstructions of justice, perjury, false and misleading statements, witness tampering, abuses of power -- all committed or orchestrated by the president of the United States."
His Democratic counterpart, Abbe Lowell, presented a more structured yet equally emphatic statement earlier in the day, telling a hushed hearing room that impeachment is "not a means to punish the president," and cautioning that Republicans should have "second thoughts" before voting to "doom the country" to as grave an action as impeachment.
Of the charges against the president, Lowell said: "No matter how they are dressed up, redivided, renamed, reorganized or duplicated, they all have the same central point: the president's improper relationship with Ms. Lewinsky. Nothing more.
"Are the issues of the president's conduct in this case so grave that you would doom the country to additional months of this ordeal and paralysis of government?"
On the eve of today's debate and the historic committee vote on impeachment expected this weekend, yesterday's dueling statements crystallized the already partisan vote in the Judiciary Committee.
Last night, as debate began, members of the panel lined up with no surprises in their 10-minute statements: the 21 Republicans in favor of impeachment, the 16 Democrats opposed.
It was unclear whether yesterday's presentations by the two chief counsels had any effect on the pivotal group of undecided moderate Republicans that could make the difference once the articles are sent to the House, as they are expected to be, late next week.
In his two-hour closing statement, Lowell likened impeachment to a fire extinguisher behind a glass enclosure that warns: "Break only in case of emergency."
"We are asking you not to break the glass unless there is literally no other choice," he said.
Even if the president has disgraced his office, Lowell said, his actions did not warrant overturning two national elections through impeachment, "the single device to remove from the office the chief executive who you decide is constitutionally disqualified to serve."
He contrasted the current highly polarized Judiciary Committee with the 1974 committee that drew up articles of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon based on misdeeds "serious and substantive enough to call for bipartisan action."
"The more we all try to dress ourselves up in the clothes of Watergate, the more we see they just don't fit," Lowell said.
Schippers, in contrast to the Democrat's methodical, point-by-point argument, mounted an expansive and emotional attack on the president. He opened with a cryptic statement that "many other allegations of possible serious wrongdoing cannot be presented publicly at this time by virtue of circumstances totally beyond our control."
The White House was quick to denounce Schippers' vaguely ominous reference. "We are disappointed and saddened the committee majority brought this solemn process down to the level of innuendo and unfair and unsubstantiated charges," said the White House special counsel, Gregory B. Craig.
Committee Democrats were far more blunt. "It's outrageous," said Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts. "I think it's McCarthyite. It leaves me to believe they know there's weakness with what they have and they have to leave something else hanging out there."
Even some committee Republicans questioned Schippers' judgment in hinting darkly of further, unsubstantiated allegations. "I was not impressed," said Rep. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas.
But Republicans said they found Schippers' overall presentation direct and forceful.
For his part, Lowell responded with a dramatic flourish to Republican criticism that the president's advocates had called no witnesses with firsthand knowledge of the facts of the case.
"If it's fact witnesses you need, then fact witnesses you get. I now call to the stand Monica Lewinsky, Betty Currie, Vernon Jordan, Linda Tripp and the president of the United States," he said to a riveted hearing room.
As heads turned to look for the surprise witnesses, Lowell and other Democratic lawyers bent below the witness table and hoisted up five thick folders full of testimony.
In a sort of made-for-TV, multimedia presentation, Lowell peppered his summation with videotaped excerpts of Clinton's deposition in the Jones sexual misconduct case as well as his grand jury testimony, audiotapes of Lewinsky and Tripp, and a mocking video montage of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr repeating, over and over, "I would have to search my recollection," and "I don't recall" in his recent appearance before the committee.
Lowell also employed grainy footage from the Nixon impeachment proceedings, showing the committee chairman, Rep. Peter W. Rodino, saying, "We have to be fair and we have to be perceived to be fair."
In making the case that the president thought the definition of "sexual relations" in his Jones deposition did not include oral sex, Lowell laid before the lawmakers and the public a portion of Clinton's videotaped testimony in which lawyers and the presiding judge squabble for 10 minutes over various definitions crafted by the Jones lawyers.
On the tape, Clinton sits silently amid the voices of lawyers, with Judge Susan Webber Wright heard saying: "If you want to know the truth, I'm not sure Mr. Clinton knows all these definitions."
At the end of the video snippet, Lowell concluded: "She could not have known how correct she was."
One by one, the Democratic counsel tackled each of the charges within the four articles of impeachment drafted Wednesday. He argued that testimony from Starr's witnesses exonerates the president on such allegations as witness tampering, concealing gifts and perjury.
For instance, Lowell read testimony from Currie in which she said she didn't recall the president asking her to retrieve gifts from Lewinsky. In another passage cited by Lowell, Currie testified that she didn't feel pressured to agree with the president when, on the day after his Jones deposition, he appeared to coax her into concurring with his version of his encounters with Lewinsky.
As for the charge of perjury, Lowell noted that the president's potentially false statements hinge on excruciatingly private matters.
"Is this what you are going to bring to the floor of the Senate?" Lowell asked. "Before you put the country through the unseemly spectacle of a trial requiring Ms. Lewinsky to describe what part of him touched what part of her, you must accept that such a trial necessarily would have to elicit prurient and salacious information."
The Republican counsel, too, made use of the president's videotaped deposition in the Jones case, but to prove an opposite point: that Clinton knowingly lied when he denied having had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, when he said he couldn't recall if he was ever alone with her in the Oval Office or whether they ever exchanged gifts.
In fact, Schippers said, Clinton and Lewinsky were alone on 21 occasions, including 11 sexual encounters, and had 55 telephone conversations, at least 17 of which involved phone sex. He said Clinton gave Lewinsky 24 gifts, and she gave him 40.
"I'd like you to listen to the president's deceptions for yourself," Schippers said.
And then, after the airing of a portion of the video in which Clinton says he was alone with Lewinsky only when she brought him papers to sign, Schippers said pointedly: "Life was so much simpler before they found that dress, wasn't it?"
Also reading from grand jury testimony, he argued that the evidence compiled by Starr contradicted explanations from Clinton's "own crafty mind."
'The essence of lying'
He said it was clear that Clinton was lying in the Jones deposition when the president said he didn't recall if he had given Lewinsky any gifts, considering that just weeks earlier, Clinton had given her dozens of presents.
"The essence of lying is in the deception, not in the words. The president's answer was false. He knew it then, he knows it now."
Schippers said the president lied to his family, his staff, the public and under oath. "There's no one left to lie to."
As for Clinton's characterization, before the grand jury, of his late-night phone conversations with Lewinsky as merely "sexual banter," Schippers quipped: "If what happened in those phone calls is banter, then Buckingham Palace is a cabin."
He disputed the Democrats' contention that Clinton's misleading statements -- on personal matters -- do not rise to the level of a high crime or misdemeanor.
"Lies are lies are lies," Schippers said. "If you don't impeach, no House of Representatives will ever be able to impeach again. The bar will be so high only a convicted felon or a traitor will need to be concerned.
"If this isn't enough, what is?"
Pub Date: 12/11/98