Brutal Fight Ends in Failure, Questions

By Mary Jacobs and David Dahl
St. Petersburg Times, Saturday, February 13, 1999
Copyright 1999 St. Petersburg Times

WASHINGTON -- They've endured months of snarling partisan combat, jokes about their competence and stinging revelations about their sex lives. What kept them going, the House Republican prosecutors of President Clinton insisted, was their conviction they were fighting for truth and justice.

But even this last shred of comfort was ripped from them Friday when the Senate rejected their perjury and obstruction-of-justice case.  The GOP-led Senate failed to muster even a simple majority for the two impeachment articles, much less the two-thirds vote required by the Constitution to remove a president from office.

For the House prosecutors, it was the final indignity, a rebuke for history. And with it, the "13 angry men," as the managers of the four-week Senate impeachment trial became known, slinked off stage, some with battered reputations, all with wounds to lick.  "I have gone through it all by your side: the media condemnation, the patronizing editorials, the hate mail, the insults hurled in public, the attempts at intimidation," Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde told his team.

Now, with the curtains drawn on impeachment, the House managers, including Florida Reps. Charles Canady and Bill McCollum, have begun to take stock. There were missteps, sure. But most agreed they could not have won, no matter what.

"I'm not at all clear there's anything we could have done that would have changed the ultimate outcome," Canady said after Friday's vote. The Senate "was driven by the high popularity numbers the president enjoys."

Said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.: "There will be post mortems, but not from . . . House managers."   Privately, however, there has been grumbling: about the unwieldy size of the group, which made it difficult to focus the argument. About miscommunications and ego-driven jockeying among the House managers in this most high-profile assignment of their careers.

Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, reserved his most bitter comments for Senate Democrats.   "They had their minds made up, despite the fact they took an oath to do impartial justice," Chabot complained.

Maybe so. But the unavoidable question for the House managers is this: How did they also manage to lose so many Senate Republicans along the way?

One explanation, managers said, is Hyde. He doesn't like to say no, and so the prosecution team swelled to a clumsy 13. The result was predictable, given congressional egos. Every one of the 13 paraded before the cameras for opening and closing statements, regardless of their ability to illuminate or interest.

For senators, required to sit quietly through all the speeches, the trial became a test of endurance. "They ramble so!" moaned Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. Later, senatorial impatience contributed to a bipartisan rejection of the managers' drive to extend the trial with witnesses.

Canady, for one, said he advised Hyde to cut the number of prosecutors in half. "I think normally in an impeachment trial it would have been better to have fewer than 13 managers," the Lakeland Republican said in an interview. "I think with six or seven managers you have the opportunity for more focus and have a little bit less repetition."  Unwilling to offend, Hyde kept the number at 13.

In practice, though, a handful of managers drove the process. Most were members of the "fact group," the subcommittee responsible for nailing down the details of Clinton's alleged perjury and obstruction of justice.

The maneuvering for membership in this high-profile group was intense.   Originally, Hyde appointed two former U.S. attorneys -- Reps. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark., and Ed Bryant, R-Tenn. -- along with an ex-judge, California Rep. James Rogan.

When controversial Georgia Rep. Bob Barr got wind of Hyde's decision, he lobbied the chairman to include him, too. Barr is a red-meat conservative who had called for Clinton's impeachment in 1997, back when it was dismissed as a crackpot idea. He told Hyde that he was a former U.S. attorney, too, and thus should be included.  Hyde didn't say no, and Barr was on the team, despite other managers' misgivings.  He was flamboyant and had recently admitted to appearing before the Council of Conservative Citizens, a group with white supremacist beliefs.  Barr insisted he did not know the group's background. But another shoe was about to drop. Hustler publisher Larry Flynt had an affidavit from Barr's ex-wife, saying her former husband, who opposes abortion, had encouraged her to terminate a pregnancy.  Clearly, Barr had to go. Republicans already had been hit with too many sex scandals, including revelations of Hyde's own affair 30 years ago. The chairman moved swiftly, replacing Barr with Bill McCollum shortly before Flynt's Jan. 11 expose. Barr was upset by his demotion, McCollum said:   "I knew he was disappointed. That was not what he wanted. I sat with him and talked, and told him I had had no knowledge of it but for an hour or so, maybe two hours of his (Barr's) learning of it."  In an interview, Barr declined to comment on his demotion. "Probably all of us would have liked to do more," he said. "I would have liked to do more."

It was not a sentiment shared by weary senators, especially openly scornful Democrats.   "The House managers -- with the exception of Hutchinson and in more general terms, Hyde -- have been very inept," said Rockefeller, the West Virginian.

Among House managers, Hutchinson emerged as the only true star. A former Arkansas Republican Party chairman and the younger brother of Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., Hutchinson laid out a compelling time-line of presidential pal Vernon Jordan's efforts to obtain a New York job for Lewinsky after the Jones lawyers subpoenaed her.  "A few have displayed real rhetorical skills: Lindsey Graham and Asa Hutchinson," conceded Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J.  Graham, in his South Carolina up-country twang, made a compelling speech comparing the House prosecutors' work to the great civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Though Democrats and many Republicans later scoffed, they were at least entertained.

McCollum fared less well. His House colleagues winced when he repeated several times the words "breast" and "genitalia," (or, gen-i-TEE-lia, as McCollum carefully enunciated) during a Jan. 15 speech.  But while the Orlando-area Republican wasn't a hit as a public speaker, he was working behind the scenes on another important area: securing an interview with Lewinsky herself.  McCollum's machinations took place as Hyde and Democrats battled over whether witnesses would testify.

The managers pleaded that without them, the trial was just a sham. But Senate Republicans, afraid witnesses would become an embarrassing spectacle, resisted. Friction with their House counterparts grew after presidential attorney David Kendall hammered the managers on the Senate floor Jan. 26.

Kendall ridiculed the prosecutors for not having called witnesses when they had the chance to do it last November and December while the House debated whether to impeach.

The public battle over the direction of the trial could have been much worse. Behind the scenes, Hutchinson beat back attempts by Graham and Rogan to expand the investigation into charges of intimidation against women who had come forward with stories damaging to Clinton.

The three met in Rogan's Capitol Hill office with former White House aide Kathleen Willey, who said Clinton had groped her. The Arkansan also flew home to meet with another woman, Juanita Broaddrick, who claimed Clinton had raped her 20 years ago, and then recanted.  Hutchinson concluded there was not enough solid evidence to introduce a new and potentially explosive line of inquiry so late in the game.  "We made the right decision," Hutchinson said.

Around the same time, McCollum worked quietly to obtain an informal interview with Lewinsky as a prelude to deposing her.  For help, he pressed Hyde's chief investigative counsel David Schippers into service.  Schippers, a shoot-from-the-hip former Chicago prosecutor, did not tell Hutchinson or other key managers of his work for McCollum.  Several learned of the efforts in the newspaper, when they read that Hyde sent a letter to independent counsel Kenneth Starr seeking his help in gaining access to Lewinsky.  Several managers blamed Schippers for the blind-side blow, and for a resulting barrage of criticism from Democrats who claimed the House members were sneaking access to Lewinsky behind their backs.  McCollum, however, said he was the real force behind the drive to meet Lewinsky.  "I initiated the meeting. I did it initially by pressing Mr. Schippers to try to get her attorneys to see to it. When that was not successful, I personally got on the phone" with Lewinsky lawyer Jacob Stein.  Of the letter to Starr? McCollum seemed surprised to hear it was controversial. "It was an open secret," he said.

On Jan. 24, McCollum, Bryant, and Hutchinson met with Lewinsky in the presidential suite of the Mayflower Hotel in downtown Washington. His colleagues wore sweaters and slacks to the Sunday meeting. McCollum dressed more formally, in sports coat and tie.   "I don't want to wrinkle your shirt," Lewinsky coolly teased him.

The House managers took Lewinsky's deposition Feb. 1. Bryant conducted the questioning, fumbling over discussions of her intimacies with Clinton.  Lewinsky seemed to be in control, often responding to questions with her own question.

Hutchinson won praise for his skillful deposing of Jordan, and Rogan fared well with White House aide Sidney Blumenthal, but it all had the feeling of a Hail Mary pass.   Indeed, when Friday's vote came, the only suspense was how many Senate Republicans would abandon their House brethren.

Ten jumped ship on the first impeachment article, charging Clinton with lying before a grand jury. Five bailed on the second article, obstruction of justice.

Afterward Hyde, whose stewardship of the failed impeachment trial will headline his obituary, held a news conference in the House Judiciary Committee hearing room. A reporter asked how it felt to have an otherwise distinguished quarter-century career in Congress defined by this failure.  "I hope to slay many more dragons," the 74-year-old Hyde answered hopefully. But his stooped frame and sagging eyes suggested Clinton had worn him out.

ISAR HOME