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Why viewing public may not see all of Clinton trial

By James N. ThurmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 11, 1999



WASHINGTON

For a nation used to raw, unedited videotape and in-your-face democracy, a startling surprise lies just around the corner: key deliberations in the Senate trial of President Clinton, including the final meeting to determine guilt or innocence, will be conducted in secret.

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Rules dictating when the cameras can run have been little debated so far, as senators struggle over larger procedural issues. But as a final blueprint for the trial emerges, it appears the only people who will experience some of the most significant moments of the trial are 100 senators and the chief justice of the US Supreme Court.

"It will leave a bad taste in people's mouth, like a deal was cut behind closed doors," if they don't see all of the proceedings, says Rich Fahle, spokesman for the 24-hour Washington cable network C-SPAN.

Many Senate stalwarts are on the record against televising certain parts of the trial, citing decorum, tradition, and decency, given the nature of the details.

"I don't think the children or the families of America should be subjected to that kind of testimony," Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky has said.

Others oppose complete coverage because of the pressures a camera would put on senators. A public airing of key, oral debates in front of cameras would transform senators from impartial jurists to grandstanding politicians, some say.

"If it's public in those debates, you'll have a number of senators who will use that occasion to play politics," predicts Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah. "Where if it's private, it may come down to really what is right and what is wrong here." Senator Hatch says he supports broadcasting "most" of the proceedings.

But the final rules determining which sessions will be aired and which will fade to dark have not been determined. In a legislative body that relishes its history and prerogative, traditional stalwarts are expected to prevail.

"There are conservatives about the institution that will strongly advocate this not be televised," says James Thurber, a political science professor at American University in Washington.

In the only case senators have to look to for guidance, the 1868 impeachment proceedings of President Andrew Johnson, television obviously wasn't an issue.

But the galleries above the Senate floor were open to sometimes raucous crowds, who jeered or applauded and at one point were cleared from the room.

In the Johnson trial, senators cleared the galleries before conducting their final closed deliberations, which lasted for days.

But it is unclear how today's public will react to censored proceedings.

The American appetite for unedited footage in recent years has grown. It is fueled by cameras mounted on police cruisers that pump adrenaline-surging car chases and shootouts into living rooms across the nation.

The Tomahawk missile-cam showed the impact at ground zero when US airstrikes punished the Baghdad skyline with laser-guided munitions.

There's even Jenni-cam, a Web site that shows the often boring, sometimes spicy events that go on inside a twentysomething's apartment, where a camera is left on 24 hours a day.

But not all senators, past and present, believe the proceedings should be closed. The question remains, should they be televised?

"Oh sure," says former New Hampshire Sen. Warren Rudman (R). "There would be a march on Washington if they weren't on TV," he smiles.

"There will be intense pressure to keep it open given the public interest," agrees Stanley Brand, a former Democratic House counsel.

Also, others argue, the American public has heard or read virtually all of the evidence anyway, "including the President's testimony before the Grand Jury, the House Judiciary Committee meeting, and the debate of the full House on the impeachment resolutions," wrote C-SPAN Chairman Brian Lamb to Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi earlier this month.

In addition, the public fed on the copious details outlined in the Starr report, made available in bookstores and on the Internet.

"[Senators] are running up against precedent," says Mr. Brand. "Generally the only matters closed in impeachment hearings are the final deliberations.... I think that it's right to open even that up."

What will be aired

Much of the day-to-day procedural activities, including presentations by the Republican House managers and rebuttals from White House lawyers.

What won't be aired

Deliberations by senators on motions, including debate over individual witnesses, if they are called.

All or portions of witnesses' testimony, if they are called.

Final deliberations to determine guilt or innocence on the two articles of impeachment.