The Oliver Twist

And now the senate, where reason wears the crown, and more sensible heads prevail. Right?

It was looking that way last week, as Majority Leader Trent Lott appeared to kibosh House Republicans’ wet dreams about having a repulsed populace watch Miss M describe the presidential ministrations in detail. Senators take themselves very seriously and regard the House as a sort of Bad News Bears operation, which it increasingly is. If anything could prod a howling zealot like Lott toward statesmanship, it’s a presumption on the part of mere House members, announced with gusto to the Times and the Washington Post, that they can tell the majestic Senate what to do.

His announced timetable for the impeachment trial, from January 11 to 22, is hardly written in stone, though. The Senate, after all, is not exactly short on people who’d fit in nicely on the House Judiciary Committee. Through last week, not much had yet been heard from them, butyou can be sure that more than a few senators want every ugly truth, or every one that suits their purposes, revealed: Phil Gramm of Texas, John Ashcroft of Missouri, Connie Mack of Florida, Jesse Helms, that sort. Lott seems to believe that forcing Democrats to vote “not guilty” can somehow be used to political advantage in 2000, when fourteen Democratic senators face re-election. It’s a nice theory, except that several Republicans are also up for re-election, many of whom – Maine’s Olympia Snowe, Delaware’s William Roth, Vermont’s Jim Jeffords – are likely to vote the same way.

Lott and company, though, are almost sure to pronounce Clinton guilty when the time comes. The world’s greatest deliberative body cannot excuse perjurers. Except, that is, when they worship them.

Turns out that these great men have considered perjury at least once before in their careers – and excused it. In 1994, Oliver North, admitted and proud perjurer, ran for the Senate from Virginia. North testified before the select Iran-contra committee in 1987, and under immunity, he admitted that he had lied to Congress in the past about the arms-for-hostages scheme and about his surreptitious aid for the Nicaraguan contras. He broke the law and lied about it, he said, because he was serving a higher purpose than the law (run that one by Henry Hyde), a purpose the liberals and the man-hating feminists and the predatory homosexual lobby couldn’t understand. He was convicted; the conviction was overturned because a judge ruled that it had been based in part on testimony he’d given Congress while under his immunity grant, but it didn’t erase his admission of having lied under oath to members of the House and Senate. Then, in January 1994, tabula technically rasa’d, he announced his challenge to Virginia’s Democratic senator, Chuck Robb, who had some colorful problems of his own at the time.

You might recall that North’s candidacy embarrassed some Republicans, notably Virginia’s sitting GOP senator, John Warner, who actively campaigned against him. And what did Trent Lott have to say about the possibility of the man who lied to senators becoming one of their number? This: “I’m going to support Ollie any way he will allow me to, and I cannot wait till I see the expression on the faces in Washington when North walks down the aisle and is sworn in next January.”

And this: “There is one judge that really does make a difference. Ollie North sat before a bank of people asking him questions, congressmen and senators. The American people watched it, and you know what the American people saw? They saw a Congress they didn’t like, and they loved Ollie North.” In fact, they didn’t, really, not even in conservative Virginia, where North lost.

Among politicians, though, Lott wasn’t alone. “Generally, it broke along regional lines,” recalls Craig Bieber, executive director of the Virginia Democratic Party, of North’s support. “I don’t remember any Northerners supporting him with any enthusiasm. Thebig wheels were Lott, Gramm, Helms, ousted senator Lauch Faircloth, and Don Nickels.” Gramm proclaimed himself “in full support of Ollie North,” while Oklahoma’s Nickels decried the “quite zealous” prosecution of North – as opposed to the, what, temperate prosecution of Bill Clinton? – and said “I’m supporting Oliver North. I think he would do well here.”

There’s more where this came from, but you get the idea. Lott, Helms, and Gramm helped North privately as well. They put the screws to Bob Dole, who retracted his original sour assessment of North’s candidacy, sent his campaign $5,000, and announced his willingness to stump with North, under sub rosa assurances from the virtuous troika that he (Dole) could kiss the GOP presidential nomination good-bye if he didn’t back North.

It’s not the sex, we’ve heard Republicans say time and time again; it’s the perjury. But the North episode makes clear that it’s not the perjury, either, since several of the Republican senators who will hear evidence against Clinton and who are almost certain to vote to convict him were willing to forgive perjury once before. So what is it?

When public opinion, expressed repeatedly and forcefully for months, and election results themselves can be mocked and dismissed, there is more than just a whiff of Weimar in the air. Lott, as Tom Edsall revealed in the Washington Post, spoke before something called the Council of Conservative Citizens, an organization with white-supremacist views, which Lott praised as “standing for the right principles and the right philosophy.” A Lott spokesman has said, naturally, that the senator had no idea of the group’s views. But one of the CCC’s leaders identified Lott as a member of the group. You’d think the possibility that the third-most-powerful politician in America was a member of a white-supremacist organization would excite intense investigation in the nation’s leading media, or at least a forceful call for him to explain himself. Well, you’d be living in a very different country.

Right-wing conspiracy-monger Richard Mellon Scaife, in an interview with George magazine, opined that Ken Starr was a sellout (!) and estimated that Clinton has probably had about 60 people snuffed. A family-values lunatic named James Dobson has charged that the White House has directed the schools to have America’s children draw the world’s largest penis and compare white penises to black. This from a book to which the revered Bill Bennett contributed the introduction.

Scaife, Bennett, and Dobson aren’t elected officials (though Bennett still is said to imagine life at the White House), but they set the agenda that people like Lott follow. And people like Lott set the agenda the Washington media follow, which ends up being the agenda the rest of us follow, too. So we’re stuck with a few more weeks of Monica, while hypocrites and madmen – including North, now a well-paid talk-show host – play out their culture war. Short trial or long, it’s a war the Republicans have lost.

The Oliver Twist