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12 February 1999

Our current howler (part I): Replacing high crimes with high dudgeon

Synopsis: Eighth graders understand the idea of high crimes. Michael Kelly still just doesn’t get it.

Commentary by Sam Donaldson
This Week, ABC News, 2/7/99

Aides and Abettors
Michael Kelly, The Washington Post, 2/10/99

Let’s face it. By now, even twelve-year-old kids in middle schools can explain basic rules of impeachment. A president can’t be removed for just any crime, but only for “high crimes or misdemeanors.” But as we’ve lamented again and again, ABC’s Sam Donaldson just can’t seem to get it. There he was, with acquittal week dawning, confused on the issue again:

DONALDSON: I sort of disagree with Senator Byrd. Of course, he has the vote, and I don’t. I would like the Senate to look at the evidence and the facts. But if they decide that this president has committed crimes, they ought to vote to expel him from office. [Our emphasis]

Nice idea, but it wasn’t the founders’. An entire impeachment year had flown by, and Sam was still misstating the simplest concepts.

But then, we hardly should single out Sam in reviewing our sad public discourse. Indeed, acquittal week dawned bright and unclear all over the capital city. On Wednesday, Michael Kelly was struggling with the same simple concept that Sam had somehow managed to miss. National Journal’s angriest scribe spoke first of Senator Byrd:

KELLY: [L]et us have one brief, shining moment of honesty, courtesy of West Virginia’s Sen. Robert Byrd, giving vent on ABC-TV’s “This Week”: “He lied under oath!” Indeed he did...The evidence of Clinton’s guilt presented to the Senate was redundantly convincing.

But don’t forget those eighth grade kids all over American classrooms. They could tell you without batting an eye: “convincing evidence” that Clinton lied under oath would not mean that he had to leave office. There would have to be another step--demonstration that this act was a constitutional “high crime.” But the furious Kelly raged, raged on, never discussing this missing element.

And then, of course, the inevitable step: his opponents had behaved in bad faith. No one simply disagrees with Kelly. It’s the law: they must stand dishonored. Anger welled in Kelly’s breast as he listed Clinton’s factual defenses:

KELLY: All utterly unconvincing, but the president’s lawyers were never aiming at convincing anyone. They...were aiming at a much easier target, jury nullification. They knew that they could count on the Senate Democrats to do the corrupt thing and the Senate Republicans to do the cowardly thing, and the establishment press to bless them both.

Get it? It’s Kelly’s standard pose: everyone’s corrupt except Michael. And in case you failed to see that Kelly’s work is based on ignoring things eighth-graders know, here’s the very next paragraph, in which he slams those dishonest Dems:

KELLY: The Senate this week will deliver a verdict that is based not on believing in Clinton’s innocence but on acquiescing in his lies. [Our emphasis]

First off, a little more eighth grade civics: a “not guilty” verdict does not mean that the juror believes the defense. “Not guilty” means the juror believes the prosecutor has not proven his case. Bright kids in junior high civics classes surely understand this point. But in the press corps, pundits ignore simple points. They get in the way of full fury.

But let’s again state the simple fact that is completely ignored in this column. A “not guilty” vote here does not mean than Clinton didn’t lie under oath. The constitution doesn’t make the Senate decide if the president has committed a crime. It asks if the president has committed high crimes. It’s a point Michael Kelly never mentions.

Yep. All over the capital, it was bright and unclear, the public discourse as acquittal was dawning. Simple facts, basic concepts were missing in action. Read on, and we think you’ll agree...

Tomorrow: Did anyone read what the witnesses said? Kaye Bailey Hutchison plays some Hardball.

Visit our incomparable archives: We’ve discussed Sam’s problem with “high crimes” before. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/18/99.

No issue too simple to butcher: When Michael Kelly gets all het up, no issue’s too simple to butcher. He discussed what Sidney Blumenthal said to his old pal Christopher Hitchens:

KELLY: Sid had told Hitchens and his wife Carol Blue that Lewinsky was “a stalker” and Clinton was “ ‘the victim’ of a predatory and sexually demanding young woman.”

When Blumenthal didn’t deny it outright, Kelly spiked his mouse in the end zone:

KELLY: There you had it, a presidential aide caught out, a major Republican claim proved.

Except it wasn’t quite so. The “major Republican claim” involved was this: there was a White House effort to slander Mo. The fact that Sid may have spoken to Chris (in mid-March) does not prove this is the case. It may be true; at THE HOWLER, we don’t know. But neither, of course, does Michael Kelly. He’s just too angry to know it.