Clinton as witness: an idea that reveals the thin veneer of fairness


WASHINGTON -- The threat by the Republicans to call President Clinton as a witness at his own impeachment trial shows just how fragile the veneer of fairness may be.

But in political terms, it also illustrates how the Republicans are treading on extremely thin ice as they pursue their design of driving Clinton from office. If they act on the notion of calling him as a witness, two results are likely.

The first would be a prolonged legal battle if the president rejected the subpoena on the argument that it would violate the doctrine of separation of powers. The other would be a further political backlash against the Republicans for trying to humiliate the president for partisan reasons.

It is not clear how serious the House Republicans may be about pursuing the idea of Mr. Clinton giving testimony. "We're all interested in hearing from the president as a witness," according to Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee and lead prosecutor. "The question is whether we should call him or not and that hasn't been resolved."

Up in the air

On the face of it, that would seem to indicate the matter is truly up in the air. But the record of Mr. Hyde's stewardship in this impeachment case is that he has ultimately gone along with the extremists in his party and on his committee who want to grind the Democratic president into the sand.

What was more striking, however, was the fact that Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, didn't rule out the possibility. "I think," he said, "that depends almost entirely on whether or not he feels he has to come up here to make his case because he may be having a more difficult time than he currently anticipates."

Translated, Mr. Hatch seems to be suggesting that the case against Clinton could prove so persuasive that there would be the possibility of significant defections among Democrats -- significant enough to provide the two-thirds vote of the Senate needed to force the president out of office. Under those circumstances, Clinton might want to testify to shore up his party colleagues just to save his skin, Mr. Hatch was implying.

Making the vote

There is also the possibility, perhaps less remote, that 51 Republicans, the simple majority needed on any procedural matter, would vote to call Mr. Clinton as a witness on the argument that new facts presented by the House now require his testimony.

The first law of politics is, of course, never say never. But there has been nothing to indicate that significant defections among the Democrats are in the offing. On the contrary, the speculation has centered on Republicans who might break with their party.

And the Senate Republicans would be playing a losing political strategy if they exposed their partisanship in such a naked way. The only real reason for summoning the president would be to humiliate him, which is something he already has done to himself.

Meanwhile, Mr. Clinton is trying to behave as if the trial is essentially beneath his notice. He is going out of town to make speeches, receiving foreign heads of state and announcing various initiatives that will be funded in the new budget. He keeps reassuring everyone he is doing "the business of the people."

But the White House has been making increasingly acerbic re- sponses to the way the House Republicans have been conducting themselves in the preliminaries to the trial. The criticism has caused some uneasiness among Senate Democrats who fear it could harden the partisan lines there as they are in the House.

Taking the opening

The talk of calling Mr. Clinton to testify, however, has given the president and his defenders a clear opening, which White House spokesman Joe Lockhart seized to say it "just once again illustrates that this is really about politics."

No one is arguing that point. But, before growing too self-righteous, the White House should remember that the whole thing started with a president behaving like an out-of-control political neophyte with a death wish.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 1/15/99

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