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27 January 1999

Our current howler: Blame all the lawyers

Synopsis: Bob Novak said Kendall was just “splitting hairs” when he refuted Asa Hutchinson’s howler.

Triumph of the Hairsplitters
Robert D. Novak, The Washington Post, 1/25/99

Senate nears plan for fast, fair end to impeachment trial
Editorial, USA Today, 1/27/99

Why had GOP senators begun to look for the door in the course of the White House defense last week? Bob Novak had the answer. Cheryl Mills and Dale Bumpers had been “the most spectacular,” he said, but then he added this:

NOVAK: What further shook already-shaky GOP senators...and established momentum in the president’s favor was the hairsplitting that long has characterized the Kendall-led Clinton team--and still does. Typical was the assault on Rep. Asa Hutchinson’s argument for the House managers...

Novak affirmed our sense that the assault on Hutch had placed the fear of God into GOP solons (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/26/99). But we had to chuckle at Novak’s description of the defense team’s deft deconstruction:

NOVAK [continuing]: Hutchinson laid out a case that the job search for Monica Lewinsky was intensified by Clinton friend Vernon Jordan on Dec. 11, 1997, after it became clear she would be called as a witness in the Paula Jones lawsuit.

Indeed, Hutchinson, echoing the gruff David Schippers, had explicitly said that Jordan’s efforts had been precipitated by a motion by Judge Susan Webber Wright, in which she had given the go-ahead for deposing witnesses, including Monica L.

But, despite explicit statements by Schippers and Hutch that Wright’s 12/11 order had caused Jordan’s conduct, the defense team showed, in painful detail, that the order was given late in the day, long after Jordan’s efforts were done. The argument by Schippers and Hutchinson had been contradicted by simple, explicit, documentary evidence. Schippers’ assertion, flying in the face of simple facts, was one of the matters that Charles Ruff had described as an example of “prosecutorial fudge.”

We have no idea how Schippers and Hutch could have made a presentation so howlingly counterfactual. We have no idea because no one in the press corps has bothered to ask them about it. Was Schippers uninformed when he made his assertion--an assertion dripping with certainty and scorn? We have no way to know what he’d say, because no one has bothered to ask him.

But a leading pundit like Robrt Novak knew how to handle the problem. He began to spin the embarrassing episode into an example of lawyerly parsing:

NOVAK [continuing]: White House Counsel Charles Ruff’s opening presentation...developed the timeline for Dec. 11 through an imaginary interrogation of Jordan. It turned out that Jordan, after meeting that day with Lewinsky, was airborne for Amsterdam before the judicial order for Lewinsky’s appearance was issued. If the senators did not get it, Kendall two days later reiterated this simple point with excruciating detail.

But of course, it was exactly because it was such a “simple point” that the matter had seemed problematic. How could Schippers--and, behind him, Hutch--not have known the real sequence of events? Of course, these were two worthies who, in the course of a year, had failed to get straight about Monica’s age (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/11/99 and 1/16/99). When a House counsel won’t even tell the truth about that, can we trust him on other simple matters?

But Bobby No knew what to do, faced with the awkward misstatements:

NOVAK [continuing]: Through the clumsy question-and-answer process Friday, Hutchinson was able to briefly respond. The job search was triggered by Lewinsky’s appearance on the Jones witness list of Dec. 5, six days before her meeting with Jordan. But Hutchinson’s truncated answer immediately was followed by Ruff’s response, expressing indignation...That’s why the president’s hairsplitters were not properly rebutted last week.

Amazing, isn’t it? Correction of howling factual error is derided as a case of “hair-splitting!” And outside the proceedings, needless to say, Hutchinson could have answered Kendall in all the detail that he pleased. And Novak fails to mention: the House GOP brief had specifically stated that the December 5 events had not caused Jordan’s efforts. Reading Novak, one would think that Hutch had restated his case. In truth, he had totally changed it.

In the end, nothing will turn on why Vernon Jordan made calls for Lewinsky on December 11. But Novak’s column offers a look at the way this sad corps really works. When House managers were accused by the White House of lying, no one asked them to explain their howlers. But one major pundit rushed eagerly forward, holding out a new plate of hot fudge.

What this country needs is a good cream rinse: More on that endless, vexing hair-splitting, from the editors of USA Today:

USA TODAY: The White House has made it clear that Clinton will not testify if asked, just as he refused to answer ten questions sent to him recently by Senate Republicans...Why take any risks when acquittal is at hand, particularly since he might be forced into the legalistic hair-splitting that threatened to turn the public against him?

We take no view on whether the president should answer the Senate’s ten questions. (For the record, some of the queries have nothing to do with the impeachment counts at hand.) But the endless reference to White House split ends is one of CelebCorps’ silliest habits. And by the way, is there any evidence that anything on earth “threatens to turn the public against [Clinton]?”

Coming next: CelebCorps has covered for gruff David Schippers through an endless assortment of howlers.

And then: At the Post, Ruth Marcus got it right, critiquing errors in the work of Cheryl Mills.