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26 January 1999

Life in this celebrity press corps: In search of a search for the truth

Synopsis: The White House called the managers liars. The press took the whole thing in stride.

Speech by Charles Ruff
U.S. Senate, 1/19/99

Clinton Defense Calls Charges ‘Witches’ Brew’
Peter Baker, The Washington Post, 1/20/99

Emphatic ‘Not Guilty’ Opens the Case for the Defense
R.W. Apple Jr., The New York Times, 1/20/99

Speeches by David Kendall, Sen. Dale Bumpers
U.S. Senate, 1/21/99

White House lawyer Charles Ruff said this, defending President Clinton:

RUFF: Those of you who have practiced on one side or another in the criminal justice system know that that system places a special responsibility on prosecutors--a burden to be open and candid and forthcoming in argument and, most importantly, in representing the facts.

It was the start of a three-day presentation in which the Clinton defense called the House managers liars. For three days, Clinton lawyers highlighted prosecution excerpts in which the managers, and majority counsel David Schippers, seemed to have simply invented facts in devising their case against Bill.

That Ruff had seemed to make this charge was noted the next day in the press. According to Baker in the Post, Ruff “all but accused the House managers of lying to the Senate last week.” Apple, in the Times, echoed Baker: “He hit particularly hard at two instances of what he called ‘fudge’ by the prosecutors, almost but not quite calling them liars or cheaters.”

Indeed, Ruff had made his views rather clear. “Be wary of the prosecutor,” he had told the Senate, “who feels it necessary to deceive the court.” And if there was any doubt about the White House view, that doubt was dispelled in Thursday’s proceedings, when David Kendall and Sen. Dale Bumpers extended Ruff’s attack.

As part of a scathing review of various misrepresentations in the charts and arguments of Manager Asa Hutchinson, Kendall had said, of Hutchinson’s work, “This isn’t even smoke and mirrors; it’s worse.” It fell to Bumpers to make the claim while directly addressing the team of managers. Describing House documents attributing motives which seemed to be directly contradicted by testimony, Bumpers asked the Senate, while discussing the managers’ case, “Let me ask you if you think this is perjury:”

BUMPERS: Is it perjury to say [what the managers said]?...That was not my interpretation; I didn’t infer that...[T]hat’s not perjury. First of all, it isn’t under oath.

Rarely will one see a more artful case of calling folks liars in public.

But if Ruff believed that a special burden is typically imposed on American prosecutors, he may have been surprised by the treatment given the White House claims in the press. One might expect it to be a point of interest when such charges are made in so august a forum. And especially when the prosecutorial errors the White House cited seemed to involve such howling misstatements of fact (see below).

But the special burden Ruff cited didn’t seem to exist in the minds of the press. The corps rarely mentioned the White House claim that Schippers and the managers had essentially lied; and no effort was made to review Ruff’s examples, or to ask Schippers and the managers to comment.

Was the White House merely making a loud, noisy charge? Or had Schippers and the managers engaged in misconduct? You’d think it would be a point of some interest--if the world expects truth from accusers.

*          *           *           *           *

It might be worth an extended look at a few of the White House charges. One of Ruff’s “examples of prosecutorial fudge-making” had involved Schippers’ closing argument to the House Judiciary Committee during impeachment proceedings. Speaking about events of December 11, 1997, when Vernon Jordan helped Mo get a job, the gruff old Schippers said this to the committee, in remarks that Ruff recited:

SCHIPPERS: But why the sudden interest?...Did something happen to move the job search from a low to a high priority? Oh yes, something happened. On the morning of December 11, 1997, Judge Susan Webber Wright ordered that Paula Jones was entitled to information regarding any state of federal official with whom the president had sexual relations, or proposed or sought to have sexual relations. To keep Monica on the team was now of critical importance.

The Schippers claim was echoed in Hutchinson’s much-praised recitation to the Senate. “And now let me ask you to focus on what Mr. Hutchinson told you about the events of December 11,” Ruff said, and he quoted Hutchinson’s presentation. In it, Hutchinson also clearly claimed that “the judge’s order triggered the president into action” on December 11.

But the White House team went on to show that the Schippers-Hutchinson presentation was factually false. As Schippers and Hutchinson should (must?) have known, the judge’s order had not been made until the early evening of December 11; there was no way the order could have “triggered” the events in the way the two had asserted. And Ruff’s first example of “prosecutorial fudge” had been almost as embarrassing a factual howler. Ruff again quoted Schippers’ closing argument in the House, in which the grumpy counsel had described a line of causation concerning events of December 28. In this case, Ruff showed, Schippers had failed to mention documentary evidence that cast extremely serious doubt on his claims.

We at THE HOWLER believe Ruff’s “fudge” may have deeply affected the Senate. The specter of being tied to a doctored case could hardly have appealed to Republican senators, already concerned about public disfavor being directed at their party. Republican senators could not be familiar with all the facts in the complex case. The possibility that House managers had doctored their case--and Ruff was saying more examples would come--may well have helped cause the retreat from the case that began after Tuesday’s presentation. (The Weekly Standard’s David Brooks, on NPR, announced the impeachment proceedings were “in the past tense” ten minutes after Ruff’s speech was finished.)

We can tell you this: in the papers we cover, we have seen no effort to examine Ruff’s examples of fudge. Nor has the press corps attempted to limn other examples from Kendall’s speech Thursday. Though Baker and Apple did mention Ruff’s claims, neither one spent much time on the awkward examples; and, as far as we know, no one has asked Hutchinson or Schippers to explain the howlers that may have caused the Senate’s retreat from the managers’ case.

But then, it’s nothing new for the press to avert its gaze when there’s evidence of lies by accusers; as our readers will know, we’ve seen this happen again and again, throughout the Clinton scandal years. And there’s nothing new when the mainstream press overlooks the strange work of the gruff, grumpy Schippers. One example: when Schippers directed House members to review secret evidence in a room in the Ford Building called the “sex vault,” we showed how the mainstream press refused to tell readers of this remarkable, stunning bit of behavior (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/22/98 and 12/30/98).

Perhaps Schippers and Hutchinson could give a good explanation, if somebody asked them about their misstatements. But so far, no one seems to have bothered to ask about the howlers they made. Embarrassing howlers littered their work; no one seemed to notice or care. Do we hold prosecutors to a special standard of truth? Perhaps Charles Ruff has also misspoken.

Tomorrow: Bob Novak discussed Ruff’s attack on Hutch. He said it was White House “hair-splitting.”